Beyond Irrelevant: Countering a Theist’s Apologetics

A critique of Sam Harris by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias led me to Zacharias’ book, Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend. In his critique of Harris, found in the essay entitled, “Existential Challenges of Evil and Suffering,” Zacharias proves himself to be more polemicist than apologist. He spends a significant effort mis-characterizing atheist arguments regarding the “problem of evil” and suffering in order to offer his Christian response.

Zacharias first attempts to re-categorize “evil” as not a “problem” but a “mystery.”  His effort is entirely self-serving and unconvincing. “There is a very important reason to brand evil a mystery,” he says.  The importance is un-specified but becomes clear soon enough. He uses Gabriel Marcel‘s definition of “mystery” to put a uniquely religious spin on the term. Mystery is “a problem that encroaches on its own data.” Zacharias goes on to explain:

By that he meant that the questioner unwittingly becomes the object of the question. One cannot address the problem of evil without ending up as a focus of the problem. Skeptics calmly bypass this reality and proceed as if they were only spectators observing a phenomenon, when in reality they are part of the phenomenon. We are not merely observers of the reality of evil. We are involved in it beyond any mere academic discussion…[Evil] subsumes the questioner in the question.

By making this assertion, Zacharias, first, ignores the issue of natural evil like floods, famines, and earthquakes. I, for example, played no part in the devastation and suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. He, therefore, incorrectly assumes that the entire issue is one of moral evil. Moreover, this line of reasoning is acceptable only if one assumes that humans are born into sin. The only way to assume that addressing the problem of evil inherently makes us the focus of the problem is by accepting the indemonstrable proposition that humans are guilty by nature of their birth. This is an untenable assertion that cannot be taken at face value and a sloppy way to argue for a new understanding of evil.

There is nothing mysterious about evil. The natural sciences have developed a great understanding of how our natural world works, including floods, famines, and earthquakes. And psychology, sociology, and neuro-science have made great strides in understanding the evils committed by groups and individuals. If evil is truly a mystery to Zacharias it is only because he remains willfully ignorant of a vast literature that is relevant to his apologies. However, there is an important reason to define evil as mystery: a self-serving reason. It is an attempt to redefine the problem so that only Christian apologetics can provide a response. It is difficult to imagine what type of atheist Zacharias believes would let this slide in a debate. Evil is a problem. It is a problem with solutions. Pretending that it is not in order to make an argumentative point in one’s favor is completely dishonest.

Zacharias’ mis-characterizations continue in his description of the problem of evil and its challenge to the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent god. To do this he claims that the problem of evil syllogism has been traditionally made as follows:

1. There is evil in the world.

2. If there were a God, he would have done something about it.

3. Nothing has been done about it.

4. Therefore, there is no God.

But this summary demonstrates that Zacharias either does not understand the problem (thus it’s a mystery?) or that he has intentionally misrepresented it to his readers. First, the god in his syllogism is unspecified. The qualities of a god specified in the problem of evil is that it is omnipotent and omni-benevolent. This is extremely important to the equation because the argument proposes that if an all-powerful, perfectly good god exits then evil cannot exist. Zacharias’ premise #3 is another self-serving misrepresentation of the argument. Traditionally, the correct expression for #3 is “evil exists,” which Zacharias has already supplied as premise #1. Why does he do this? Because his version of “the third premise is not self-evident. It is susceptible to strong counterarguments because it is a deduction itself and in need of inductive support.” This substitution, therefore, is an intentional trick used to confuse the argument for his readers in order to make his point. The correct premise, “evil exists,” is inductively evident and not susceptible to strong counterarguments. Therefore, Zacharias must substitute it with a weak premise of his own.

Never believing that an atheist will be quick to call him out on this blatant misrepresentation, Zacharias then provides two Christian responses to the problem. However, each is a non-sequitur because they both assume the same incorrect premise in his summary of the problem. Despite how strongly he believes these arguments are sure to self-stultify atheists, Zacharias’ illogic at each step renders these arguments useless.

Zacharias continues with his mis-characterizations by arguing that atheists believe that a god cannot exist because there is no observable moral order to the world. Perhaps there are atheists who do not believe there is a moral order but none that I know. On the contrary, for most atheists morality is an inherent part of being human. There is a long intellectual history arguing, in the form of “natural law,” the point that morality is innate. The scientific evidence that supports this argument gets stronger every year.

Ignoring this evidence, he poses a question about the purpose of pain in a moral order. “If it is possible in our finite world with limited knowledge to see just one benefit of pain, is it not possible for God to design this characteristic within us to remind us of what is good and what is destructive?” For his one benefit of pain, Zacharias describes a “horrendous” example of a girl with the medical condition known as congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA). With this condition, the girl cannot feel pain and, as a result, leads a perilous life. She could burn herself without reacting, blind herself without feeling it, a whole host of perpetual dangers await her because she cannot feel pain. “Parents of children with CIPA,” says Zacharias, “have one prayer: that they would feel pain.”

Here again, however, Zacharias plays a substitution game. First, he confuses a neurological response to stimuli (pain) for an existential condition (suffering). Although continued pain will lead to suffering, the experience of pain as a biological function serves to help us avoid suffering. This is why the parents of children with CIPA wish their children to feel pain. It is an inherently naturalistic answer. It also says nothing about the existence of a god in a moral order, much less is it a defense of such god given the fact of evil and suffering. (Conspicuously missing from this example is any explanation as to how a child with CIPA fits into the moral order created by a perfectly good god. What would be this god’s purpose for inflicting such a “horrendous” condition on a child?) To truly address the problem, the question should read, “if it is possible to see just one benefit of evil or suffering, is it not possible for an omni-benevolent god to design this characteristic within us to remind up of what is good and what is destructive?” The answer is now more problematic for the purposes of theistic apologetics and more obvious as to why Zacharias needs this substitution. It says that a perfectly good god intentionally designed evil and suffering (not just permits their existence) as a tool to teach humanity a lesson. Zacharias must avoid the question phrased this way because he’d then have to defend the idea of an omni-benevolent god who, as author and creator of evil and suffering, inflicts them upon humanity. Horrendous, indeed!

The back cover of Beyond Opinion proclaims that Ravi Zacharias is the “World’s Leading Christian Apologist” and that the book aims to win “people rather than arguments.” (Can people be won without argument?) At almost each step of the way, Zacharias offers gross mis-representations of the rational issues presented by the “problem of evil.” I’d expect that the leading apologist would have responses that addressed the actual questions. What, I wonder, are his apologetics designed to defend against? The back cover provides a clue…the arguments are not important. Instead, Zacharias’ apologetics serve only as a self-insulating mechanism to protect key presuppositions from critical thought. This approach to apologetics provides a license to ignore rational critiques entirely. Beyond irrelevant, it is apologetics in the worst sense of the term.


Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin


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About JP Laughlin

Originally intent on Christian ministry, I attended the College of Charleston where I earned a BA in Religious Studies (and where I also nearly completed a BA in Biology) and where I met my wife in our New Testament class. I attended graduate school at the University of Washington and earned a MA in International Studies – Comparative Religion. My areas of focus were Religion-and-Culture and American Religion. Somewhere along the way, I escaped from the prison of religious belief and found a new joy in living.

4 responses to “Beyond Irrelevant: Countering a Theist’s Apologetics”

  1. toasty redhead says :

    Thank you for a great post.

  2. Steve says :

    JP- I read your post after searching for the Marcel quote from Ravi. I was intrigued by your answers to Ravi, and in the end, found myself very thankful.

    I appreciate the way you sifted through Zacharias’ logic. It reminds me that lessons in apologetics should be FOR Christians who want to make a defense for the hope they have, and not to convince anyone of anything.

    I personally believe your delineating of the issue above renders a service to both theists and atheists (or anti-theists). That service is a dusting-off of the threshold of free-will that leads to faith in God, or a god, or in no God, etc. There is a line to cross, from head-knowledge of evidence and logical conclusions, to action that is supported by, and yet ultimately transcends, those elements. By clouding the threshold mallogically (I just made that crap up), a defender, or apologist, of any worldview or philosophy, could create a lukewarm disciple that wouldn’t do anybody, or any deity, any good at all. From my polemical standpoint as a Christian, I would much rather have non-Christian make a decision for Christ from a point of honesty about their current self, than from a muddled idea of where they stood in the first place. I would imagine it is much the same for an Atheist or Anti-Theist seeking their own proselytes.

    I hope I did not do a disservice to you with this post…I’m sure if I overstepped my bounds, a slam-dunk rebuttal rivaling the one you gave Ravi is warranted 🙂

    I liked your short bio – I also have a passion for literacy. The book Push by Sapphire is the reason I work with at-risk students. Hope to chat sometime…


    • JP Laughlin says :

      First, thank you very much for reading my post. I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. You have done no disservice to me and have certainly not over-stepped any bounds.
      On this issue I think we both agree. When many (I almost want to say ‘all’ but am holding out for someone who changes my opinion) apologists try to use logic to argue their positions, they fail spectacularly. Some, like William Lane Craig, even admit that all evidence to the contrary would not change their minds. (To me, that makes them dishonest debaters). But I don’t hold any particular ire towards theists ‘just because’ the are theists. The admired friend and colleague that I mention on this site’s homepage, for example, is a Presbyterian minister. We have great conversations.

      In regards to your use of “mallogically,” I love it! As an “armchair linguist” I thoroughly enjoy the ease with which people can use the rules of word formation in English to create new words that fit their purposes.

      I haven’t read the book “Push,” I’ll have to check it out. Some years ago, I also worked with at-risk youth. It was a very fulfilling career.

      peace out


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