Gabriel Marcel on the Mystery of Evil

Here is a brief excerpt from my first bookEvil and the Evidence for God, published in 1993:

“Some philosophers have been rather adroit in their expression of this theme. For Gabriel Marcel, the only problem of evil is what is sometimes called the ‘existential’ mode of the problem. If Marcel is correct, this language intrudes a pseudodistinction and the so-called logical problem of evil becomes a pseudoproblem, or a mystery degraded to the level of a problem. To seek ‘the causes or the secret aims’ of experienced evil, the professed goal of any theodicy, is to view evil ‘from outside,’ where evil no longer ‘touches me’ and is therefore ‘no longer evil which is suffered.’ And evil that ceases to be suffered ‘ceases to be evil.’ So the only evil that exists is the evil that we encounter in our prereflective lived experience. Our ivory tower incursions into logical territory miss the heart of the matter.”

It has always seemed to me that Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was onto something. Today I would say it is a penetrating insight. The details can be found in his little book The Philosophy of Existentialism. But the themes intimated there are explored and developed throughout his essays and plays.

Today, October 8, is the anniversary of Marcel’s death. His work lives on and his influence continues, notably through the work of the Gabriel Marcel Society. I hope you’ll venture to explore the rich texture of Christian sensibility reflected in the pages of this French thinker of the 20th century.

Animated Video on the Problem of Evil

Image.People.Greg GanssleI’m pleased to direct your attention to a new series of videos on the problem of evil for Christian theism, narrated by my friend Greg Ganssle. Greg is a philosopher at Yale University and a Senior Fellow of the Rivendell Institute at Yale. These are effective animated videos that encapsulate a treatment of the problem of evil concisely and in an engaging format. Have a look. Then come back here and leave your comments!

Click here for a link to the first 5-minute video in the series. More about Greg can be found here.


In Memoriam—John Hick (1922-2012)

John Hick, the eminent scholar in the world of religion, died at the age of 90 on Thursday, February 9, 2012. Many will mourn the loss of this gentle man and incisive thinker. But we will also count ourselves blessed to have known him, and celebrate his work among us for so many decades of fruitful scholarship.

I first met John Hick in 1985 or 1986 following a lecture he delivered at the Claremont Colleges, in southern California. I had just written my M.A. thesis (for Gonzaga University) on his treatment of the problem of evil. When I shared this with him, he said he would be interested in reading it. After he had read it, he wanted to meet. So we scheduled a get-together at the colleges and talked about my project. I will always remember two things he said to me at this meeting. The first thing he said, once we got down to business, was that, in my exposition of his position, I had gotten it right. He added that this was unusual for critics of his various views. This put me at ease immediately. We may have met for an hour. Toward the end John asked me what plans I had for publishing my thesis. I had no plans. But John urged me to seek a publisher for it, and offered his assistance.

This was indeed an auspicious beginning to a long-term friendship with one of the world’s foremost religious scholars of the 20th century. It led, eventually, to the publication of my first book, Evil and the Evidence for God: The Challenge of John Hick’s Theodicy (Temple University Press, 1993), with an Afterword by John himself.

A few years later, John’s book, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (Yale University Press, 1989) was released. This book was the publication, in expanded form, of his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 1986-1987. The book earned him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion. Shortly after its release, the Claremont Graduate School hosted a major conference, with scholars from various places around the world present to discuss his sophisticated defense of religious pluralism. I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Southern California at the time, and I was surprised by the invitation I received, with John’s support, to participate in the proceedings and present a paper of my own.

In this way I was drawn into the discussion of religious pluralism. Shortly after I was appointed to my first teaching post at Taylor University (Upland, Indiana), Wheaton College issued a call for papers for a conference on religious pluralism. I sent a brief proposal for a paper evaluating John Hick’s position. Because it was one of very few proposals for a direct discussion of Hick’s important contribution to the topic, I was told, I was invited to deliver my proposed paper.

Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, who had hosted the conference, eventually developed the idea for a book that was to be called More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (first published by Zondervan in 1995 and later reissued under the moderately abbreviated title Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World in 1996). Again, I was invited to participate, and I was asked if I might contact John Hick to request his participation, as well. He agreed. The two other contributors were Alistair McGrath and Clark Pinnock. Gary Phillips was co-author with me for a chapter we titled “A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach.” John’s chapter was called, sensibly and simply enough, “A Pluralist View.” The most illustrious contributor, of course, was John Hick. And it’s very possible that the book remains in print on account of his contribution.

These are the only projects in which I partnered, after a fashion, with John Hick. But we had many get-togethers over the years. Most of these happened during the years he was at Claremont, where he held the Danforth Chair in the Philosophy of Religion from 1979 to 1992. At other times we would meet when we happened to be at the same professional conference. The second most memorable occasion of our meeting was long after he had retired and I visited him at his home at the end of Seeley Oak in Birmingham, England.

John Hick was a brilliant communicator, in print and with a microphone. He was a gracious scholar who respected would-be scholars 40 years his junior. He was tenacious in defense of his many controversial positions, and friendly and tolerant toward those who disagreed. Always fair-minded and even-handed in his dealings with me, he marked my life in ways no other scholar of similar repute has (or could have), and he steered me in ways he would never have known.

John was Irenaean as opposed to Augustinian in his theodicy, a universalist and a pluralist in soteriology, a kind of Kantian anti-realist regarding the existence and nature of God—all things that I am not. But there are two reasons why he could not be ignored. First, he reasoned his way to his positions with great care and he could articulate them with great clarity. Second, he had begun his theological odyssey as an evangelical of more-or-less the sort that I am, but had gradually and in nearly step-wise fashion moved further and further away from this starting point in his career as a professing Christian. His kindness toward me would naturally count as a third reason to engage and evaluate his work with the same care that he exemplified as book after book flowed from his pen.

When I last saw John Hick, I suspected that we would not see each other again. He had ceased traveling across the pond, and I had no immediate plans to return to England. But we remained in touch over many years. I will miss his Christmas cards. And I will miss him.

For more on John Hick:

I wish to thank Fred Sanders, writer for The Scriptorium, who encouraged me to post about my experiences with John Hick. See Fred’s post here.

The Missing Ontological Argument in the Craig vs. Law Debate

October 17, 2011, William Lane Craig and Stephen Law met in London to debate the topic “Does God Exist?” Subsequent to the debate, Law has posted briefs that he prepared for arguments and objections that Craig might state during the debate. I’m not sure why—since I haven’t known Craig to include an ontological argument in his arsenal of theistic arguments during a debate—but Stephen Law had prepared notes in case the ontological argument did get presented. He has posted these at his website.

Here is what Law writes, in order to meet the ontological argument in case it is presented:


It’s possible a maximally great being exists.

…Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

This argument has no force at all against the evidential problem of evil. In fact, ironically, it actually serves to reinforce my conclusion. For if I can use the evidential problem of evil to show there’s actually no god – that the conclusion of Craig’s ontological argument is false – then the validity of the argument entitles me to draw the further conclusion that’s it’s not even possible that god exists!

So my thanks to Professor Craig for furnishing me with an argument that serves actually to amplify my conclusion – allowing me to move from: there’s no god to: necessarily, there’s no god.

Stephen Law here anticipates a modal version of the ontological argument, which might be sketched as follows:

1. If God (a maximally great being) exists, then God exists necessarily.
2. It is logically possible that God exists.
3. If it is logically possible that God exists, then there is a possible world in which God exists.
4. In any possible world in which God exists, God exists necessarily.
5. To exist necessarily “in” any possible world is to exist necessarily.
6. To exist necessarily is to exist in all logically possible worlds.
7. Therefore, God exists.

A premise like (2) is characteristic of modal versions of the ontological argument.

Now Law seems to think he can defeat this argument with an evidential argument from evil. His confusion on this point is breath-taking. His evidential argument from evil, at its very best, shows, at most, that it is probable that God does not exist. The probability is less than 1. To defeat the ontological argument with an argument from evil, his argument would have to entail that God does not exist. The probability that God does not exist would have to be 1. It would have to prove, as he says, that the conclusion of Craig’s argument is false. But Law’s own argument, as a matter of logic alone, cannot achieve this goal. It is a probabilistic argument. As such, it leaves open the possibility that God exists, even if the probability is quite low.

Law might embellish his rebuttal by suggesting that premise 2 of the ontological argument (as stated above) is not necessarily true. There may only be some degree of probability, less than 1, that premise 2 is true. But because the argument is not formulated in this way, Law would bear the burden of showing that premise 2 has a probability of less than 1. He would actually have to do more than that. He would need to show that premise 2 is improbable. His evidential argument against the existence of God is of no use to him for that purpose. For that matter, I have no idea how he, or anyone else, could show that premise 2 is improbable.

Or Law might seek to rescue his defeater by claiming that God cannot be maximally great if there is enough evidence from evil to make it likely that God does not exist. But this wouldn’t work, either. For his evidential argument cannot prove that a maximally great being does not exist. It can, at best, show that it is unlikely that such a being exists.

Notice that, in his post-debate recapitulation of his argument during the debate, Law’s basic aim was to show that belief in Craig’s good God is not sufficiently more reasonable than absurd belief in an evil god. He cast his argument in terms of probabilities.
Here’s the main point: an evidential argument from evil leaves open the possibility that God exists. Clearly, Law believes his evidential argument makes the probability of God’s existence extremely low. But it cannot, as a matter of logic, reduce the probability of God’s existence to zero.

So the ontological argument, whatever its merits or demerits, remains unscathed by Stephen Law’s “ready-in-the-wings” counter-argument.

I’m afraid this means that he understands neither the ontological argument, nor his own evidential argument from evil. So William Craig might as well have presented the ontological argument. This would have presented him with a golden opportunity to expose this confusion.

“If God, Why Evil?” Presentation Slides

Today I participated in the “Always Be Ready” conference in Downey, CA. The title of my presentation was “If God, Why Evil?”

You’re welcome to view the Keynote slides I used for this presentation. Just click on the following link:

Doug Geivett, “If God Why Evil” (2010.07.31)

Related post here.

Doug to Speak at the “Always Be Ready” Conference July 31

Doug will be speaking at the “Always Be Ready” conference at Calvary Chapel, Downey, CA—July 31, 2010—2:00-2:55 pm. Topic: “If God, Why Evil?”

For registration information and other details:

“Always Be Ready” Conference—Calvary Chapel Downey

This conference is sponsored by the Veritas Evangelical Seminary.

Update (1 August 2010):

Keynote slides for this presentation can be viewed here.

Doug to Speak at the Caleb Conference on the New Atheism

Read more of this post

%d bloggers like this: