Saturday, 2 January 2016

Ron Highfield on the Rhetorical Argument from Evil

Towards the end of The Faithful Creator, Ron Highfield outlines what he labels the ‘rhetorical argument from evil’ against God’s existence:

The rhetorical argument from evil begins by rehearsing in exquisite detail excruciating and nauseating accounts of horrendous cruelty and suffering. It does not move to a conclusion by way of inference but ends with a challenge, explicit or implicit: how dare you diminish the horror of human suffering by making it a means to greater good or a higher harmony! Such exclamations are more agonized protest than rational argument. It forces believers to choose between shame-faced silence and playing the role of the cold-hearted theodicist.

Ron Highfield, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), p. 332

images belong to The Estate of Alice Neel
To elucidate the matter, Highfield looks at Voltaire’s Candide and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Highfield’s account of the latter is interesting because he notes how subsequent critics focus on Ivan Karamazov’s rhetoric in ‘The Rebellion’ and ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ and avoid the response that is the life of Elder Zosima. The point is that the so-called rhetorical argument from evil cannot be refuted intellectually; it can only be assuaged by recognising on an epistemic level that cruelty and suffering cannot be explained away. We simply do not know why God allows rape or murder or terrorism or exploitation to happen. But we can be sure, says Highfield, that these things will not be for nothing: ‘To hope that God will “dry every tear” does not imply that the tears were cried for nothing; rather it asserts that life is stronger than death and joy more lasting than sadness.’ (p. 357)

I admit I’m not sure how far to go along with what Highfield contends here. I have trouble accepting his distinction between metaphysical and epistemic absurdity (p. 356), because this implies that while we (currently) may not know why something evil happens, we can be sure that that something does have a proper place in God’s providence. How far does this stance simply justify the presence of evil in a world created good? There is surely a distinction to be made between saying that God works all things for good (Rom. 8:28) and that all things are justified or made acceptable by the good that arises from them.

In this context of protest atheism, Highfield also offers a critique of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology:

Moltmann explicitly denies that God is vulnerable to sin, suffering and death by nature. Instead, God voluntarily suffers so that the world might exist and God voluntarily abandons the Son so that sinners might be accepted. But this theory of divine self-limitation is a fiction; it is an all-too-convenient, ad hoc hypothesis designed to secure the benefits of a finite and suffering God without being burdened with its liabilities. If God can suffer willingly, it follows that God’s nature is such that God can suffer, which is to say that God is by nature vulnerable to suffering. Otherwise it would not even be possible for God voluntarily to suffer. I can suffer and die. Hence I can suffer and die willingly or unwillingly. If God can willingly suffer and die, does it not follow that God can suffer and die unwillingly? (p. 359, emphasis original)

No; it doesn’t follow. Highfield is right to point out that Moltmann’s theology means that God’s suffering entails an ability to suffer by nature, but this doesn’t mean that God can suffer unwillingly. In the end, then, while Highfield’s chapter on the rhetorical argument from evil is fascinating and contains a number of insightful perspectives, I cannot help but think the most appropriate response to such an argument is far simpler than he makes out: genuine lament before God.


  1. Terry: Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter of my book and offer a thoughtful analysis and critique of its argument. I agree that lament is a good biblical and theological category and a very appropriate response to suffering. But even when we lament we can still hold on to hope that God is faithful. I am not sure but I think a study of biblical laments might reveal affirmations of the type for which I argue. After all, lamenting is not cursing or despairing. Thanks again! Ron Highfield

    1. Thanks for commenting, Professor.

      I agree that even in lament, we can still hold on to hope that God is faithful. But I think for me genuine lament arises because although we do have this hope in God's faithfulness, present circumstances suggest the opposite, that somehow God has abandoned us. This is genuine tension: God is faithful, so why isn't God doing anything to address the situation? And different psalms of lament respond to the tension in different ways. Of course, all this relates to the distinction you make between metaphysical and epistemic absurdity, so I need to think about this some more. Thanks again for commenting.