I just read an intriguing paper by Erik Wielenberg entitled Skeptical Theism and Divine Lies. The entire paper is worth reading, but I’ll try to summarize his arguments and offer my thoughts. And judging by the stuff he has on his faculty web page, he seems like a pretty good guy overall:
In his paper, Wielenberg argues that people who try to get around the problem of evil by saying that just because we can’t think of a justification for a particular evil doesn’t mean that there isn’t one must also accept that just because we can’t think of a justification for God lying to us doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Although this would not disprove God, it would show that we have no good reason for thinking that God is telling us the truth. Of course a believer could instead reject skeptical theism, but that would make it very difficult to respond to the problem of evil.
Calling God’s honesty into question would cause serious problems for Christianity. Wielenberg quotes Nicholas Wolterstorff's observation that “deep in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is the attribution of speech to God. To excise those attributions from those religions would be to have only shards left.” Wolterstorff also noted that the “traditional principles guiding biblical interpretation in the Christian tradition” is the principle “that God never speaks falsehood.” Wielenberg then quotes Richard Swinburne discussing how mankind needs God to reveal things like the atonement and heaven and hell. If Christians can’t rely on God to be honest, then how can Christians possibly know anything about God or the afterlife? The self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that apologist William Lane Craig loves to talk about might not be so self-authenticating after all.
But it would also be problematic to reject skeptical theism, as it seems to be the only half-decent answer to the problem of evil. Many non-believers argue that if there is an evil act that seems completely irreconcilable with an omnibenevolent God, then it probably is. At the very least, the great number of seemingly unjustifiable evils provides evidence against the existence of God. A skeptical theist would respond by saying that our knowledge is extremely limited and just because we can’t think of a justification doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have one. Given how little we actually know, this seems like a somewhat reasonable response, though in cases like the Holocaust, it seems impossible that the good could outweigh the bad without the word good losing all meaning. But at least the skeptical theist response is logically coherent.
Wielenberg explains that one problem with accepting skeptical theism is that God could have a justification for anything. A Christian might believe that they don’t have to worry about global warming or a nuclear holocaust because God will protect them. But under skeptical theism, this would be irrational. God might have some justification for killing everyone on earth in the most painful way imaginable. He could even have some justification for then sending everyone on Earth to an eternity in hell. We have no reason to take God at his word, for he could have an unknown reason for lying to us.
Wielenberg’s core argument is essentially this:
Premise 1: If skeptical theism is true, we have no reason to deny that God telling a lie has some justification we don’t know about.
Premise 2: If we have no reason to deny that God telling a lie has some justification we don’t know about, then we do not know any proposition based solely on God’s word.
Therefore: Skeptical theism implies that we do not know any proposition based solely on God’s word.
So a skeptical theist must accept that they cannot know even core tenants of Christianity like the claim that Christians can get eternal life. Of course it’s hard to imagine how God could be justified in lying to us about something like that. But as skeptical theists say, just because we can’t think of a justification doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Maybe there’s some justification for the Holocaust that we can’t even begin to understand, and maybe there’s some justification for God deluding us into thinking we will live forever when instead we will rot in the ground.
I was glad to see that Wielenberg addressed what I see as a likely response from Christians: “So what?” Why is it so horrible if God does lie occasionally? That was basically the reaction I anticipated some Christians having when I first heard about my friend Ben’s project of mapping a debate with a number of Christians on whether God is lying about hell.
A believer could still say that at the very least if God tells them something, they can know that God wants them to believe it. So divine revelation is not God revealing the truth, but God revealing what he wants us to believe. However, even this is uncertain. If we do not know God’s purpose for telling us something, we do not know how God wants us to respond. For all we know, he could want us to respond by being angry at God, for maybe this will lead to the most good in the end. So God telling us something gives us no basis for believing it or even for acting as if we believe it.
Another possible response Wielenberg addresses is that this argument does not show that God is morally imperfect, so at least everything will end up fine in the end. But since under skeptical theism there may be moral goods that God is trying to achieve which are beyond our understanding, we cannot know anything about our fate. For all we know, there is some overriding good that could be achieved by torturing all believers eternally and letting only atheists into heaven.
So while skeptical theism may enable Christians to escape the problem of evil, it ends up destroying mainstream Christianity. If Isaiah 55:9 and Ecclesiastes 8:17 really do indicate that God may have unknowable reasons for his actions, and Stephen Wykstra is right that skeptical theism “is not an additional postulate: it was implicit in theism (taken with a little realism about our cognitive powers) all along,” then Christianity itself is incoherent.
Overall, I think that Wielenberg presents a strong argument, one that all believers should carefully consider.