Reading Time: 13 minutes / Laszlo Honti
Reading Time: 13 minutes

A very quick synopsis so far in this debate initially with Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong and then carried on by Catholic Paul Hoffer. Please read the previous pieces for context. There are quite a few:

And then the last one:

This about whether God needs to be fair when designing and creating the world, and given the vast difference ranging from no evidence at all (people living before the Bible, etc) up to poking the resurrected Jesus after seeing him crucified and dying, God is unfair in the way he apportions evidence/gives people access to belief and God’s love. This is generally how I talk of fairness in this context: giving everyone the equality of opportunity to access God’s love.

But this is supposedly not necessary for God. God is warranted in assigning different quotas of evidence and then punishing people digitally on this account.

Here are a couple of useful syllogisms I have employed:

1) God is omnibenevolent and being such will have fairness as a benevolent attribute

2) God wants humans to enter into a loving relationship with him

3) God has designed people (or the system that designs people) to not have equal fairness and opportunity to access a loving relationship with him

4) God also has the power to level the playing field ex post facto but appears not to do so

C) God is not fair, and thus not omnibenevolent


1. Classical theism’s conception of God only exists if He is omnibenevolent.

2. Fairness is an aspect of omnibenevolence.

3. If God is not fair, then Classical theism’s conception of God does not exist.

What we have learned so far

We have so far learned from debating my interlocutor, in my opinion, that:

  1. God is unfair, and should have to produce some kind of complex matrix to allow everyone Equality of Opportunity to Access God (EOAG). Either God does not exist or he is not omnibenevolent.
  2. Hoffer misunderstands my views on fairness.
  3. Hoffer thinks God does not have to be fair, at least in terms of my (misunderstood) version of fairness.=, such as crucially misunderstanding my position as equality of outcome when it is equality of opportunity!
  4. Hoffer doesn’t adhere to God needing to be omnibenevolent, except really he does.
  5. Hoffer does not understand or give a coherent account of the causal variables involved in belief.
  6. Hoffer’s case rests on both doxastic voluntarism and libertarian free will, neither of which he establishes, both of which are incoherent and problematic.


Hoffer, in trying to establish that God does not need to be fair (in whatever way he thinks I define it), likes to bring his parables to the party. After employing the Prodigal Son, he opines:

Doesn’t this parable make you want to scream, “God, that is not fair!  The workers who worked all day under grueling conditions got paid the same amount of money as the workers who labored for an hour!  How is ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’ fair?”  If the landowner/God was fair, wouldn’t he have given the workers who worked the most extended more money than those who did not?  Instead, the landowner/God chose to give everyone the same wage.  This may offend our sense of fairness, but the landowner/God did not cheat anyone in reality.  He may not have been fair, but He was just.  He gave each worker what was promised.  God gives each of us enough evidence of His existence.  You can see God at the minimum in each person you meet.  He gave you a conscience, an innate sense of right and wrong.  Is it His fault if you do not exercise your conscience to do right?  God instills in each of us a desire to seek the truth.  Is it His fault if you choose not to seek the truth?  God gives each of us the capacity to love one another.  Is it His fault if you choose not to do so?  He gives us all that He promises

Are any of us entitled to receive more? If God chooses to be generous or merciful to whom He wills, are we really in a position to begrudge Him? You complain about the amount of evidence God has given you to consider whether He exists, but why should you get more than the rest of us? I got the same amount of evidence as you, yet I believe. He gave you far more intellect than the average Joe who also chooses to believe in Him. How selfish are you to argue that you deserve more evidence than what I got? The way I see it, God respects your freedom to acknowledge His existence far more than you respect His magnanimity in giving you what you already have.

As I said before, grace must be taken into account. It is not something God owes us or that we can earn it, nor can we demand it. We are not entitled to it. God’s grace is freely given to those who ask for it.

This is sort of Westboro Baptist Church area. If God decides you’re going to die, that’s his judgement: don’t question it. If a tsunami kills 230,000 people and billions of animals, who are we to question?

Of course, this rests on ideas of perfect being theology and omni-characteristics. It’s okay nmot to question if you assume that God is morally fair, just, and morally perfect (however you might define these!). Either you believe God is a moral monster (or morally imperfect) or you do not. I would simply ask Hoffer: Do you believe God is morally imperfect?

If the answer is “yes”, then fine. My job here is done. If it is “no, God is morally perfect”, then here is the problem. How God apportions grace (and we can just substitute grace for evidence here if it really makes Hoffer happy) must then be done morally reasonably. Hoffer may try to weasel his way out of these problems by saying omnibenevolence is not a Catholic dogma (see the previous pieces), but it doesn’t cut the mustard. Okay, so what is God if not technically omnibenevolent? A moral monster? No? Then how do you see him in terms of great-making properties or love or morality or perfection?

Those deaths above must be fair (or just, where fairness is the fair apportioning of justice) in some sense or God is a moral monster. Like all Christian apologists, the problem of evil is a real thorny issue. What they do is employ consequentialism in the form of theodicies. I discussed this in the first articles in the series. The fairness argument as I set it out is essentially a reformulation of the problem of evil. That certain people have less evidence and less propensity to believe is analagous to why some people suffer pain or die, and others do not, in any given scenario. Hoffer needs to provide a theodicy to explain this unequal access to God’s love, and guaranteed it will be consequentialist. That is the only way you can balance a prima facie, intrinsically unfair scenario.

God allowed Hitler to kill 6 million Jews. One would assume that this is intrinsically morally reprehensible. It is justified using theodicies like the free-will theodicy. The consequence of stopping it and invalidating human free will (which he happily did by intervening in the Bible constantly, btw) is somehow consequentially morally worse than allowing at least 6 million people to die. Or any other such theodicy, or a combination thereof. You get the point.

So far, Hoffer seems intent on trying to undermine my account of fairness without really addressing these central issues. Perhaps that will come.

Who are we to second guess God?

But God, Hoffer says, can be generous to one but not to another, and we just have to suck it up. God doesn’t need to answer to us. Okay. I won’t question him only under the reasonable assumption that God really is morally maximally perfect. The only reason we question him is that it doesn’t actually look like this is the case. The basis of Hoffer’s position here is like Job in the Old Testament: don’t question the mind of God that is unfathomably more complex and knowing than yours. Fair enough, but the assumption here is that God is still actually fair/just/loving/morally perfect. It’s not:

  • Don’t question the mind of God because you might find out that…EVERYTHING’S MENTAL AND HE HAS NO REASON FOR DOING ANYTHING! IT’S ALL IMMORAL AND NUTS!

But rather:

  • Don’t question the mind of God. Have faith that, though God moves in mysterious ways, he is ultimately good/fair/just.

In other words, I don’t agree with Hoffer’s tack here. And is this maximally loving? Is this in some way maximally good? If so, please explain how, and if not, please explain how God is less than.

This is a two-horned dilemma:

  1. Either a given agent deserves more generosity/mercy than the next agent – if so, what underwrites this just desert? or
  2. A given agent does not deserve more generosity than the next agent but gets it anyway: God is random.


[Let’s not forget that of the “means of grace” between Catholics and Protestants gets them all riled up; i.e., whether the efficacy of the sacraments as channels of the divine grace is dependent on good works performed or dependent on the faith of the recipient.]

The grace issue just gets him in a twist, because it looks like the answer to the above is (2) and I’m not sure God comes out smelling of roses, then:

As I said before, grace must be taken into account. It is not something God owes us or that we can earn it, nor can we demand it. We are not entitled to it. God’s grace is freely given to those who ask for it.

We don’t earn it (so it is not deserved) and are not entitled to it. Therefore, God’s grace is random? I’m not sure it can be read any other way. Hoffer tries to get around this by saying that though it may not be fair, it is just. But this is merely setting the fairness evaluation a level back (and I would argue that fairness is a part of justice norms). God gives out evidence/grace in a just manner – i.e., to those who deserve it (this is known as just deserts). He is being fair in his just apportioning. It’s just another version of fairness. What we have now is agent F deserving grace, or 20% extra evidence (or whatever), and G not deserving grace or 20% extra evidence (based on some divine evaluation). If God is fair, then he will apportion his grace/evidence justly, so that everyone who deserves it gets it. Otherwise, this is both unfair and unjust!

Of course, apologists disagree a fair bit on this grace thing. I’m not surprised, it’s another area of utter incoherency. That last link starts with:

God’s grace simply doesn’t make sense to me. It is radical. Extreme. Counterintuitive. Free and boundless. It goes against human logic. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to you either. So, why do we have so much trouble wrapping our minds around God’s lavish grace?

For starters, the world we live in operates with different rules. Normally, we reap what we sow. We work hard in order to earn a paycheck. When drive faster than the speed limit, we get an expensive ticket.

And, we know we don’t deserve grace. We don’t deserve a saving relationship with Jesus. Yet, He pours it out on those who don’t deserve it. God lavishes His grace on those not seeking it. And after our conversion, through times of rebellion, complacency, grief, and struggle, God gently draws us back to Himself with cords of love.

This is just nonsense – I get the skepticism, I would just take a few steps further to throw the whole thing out rather than invent ad hoc reasoning and then fall back to skeptical theism and mysterianism. There must be some just desert, otherwise grace is given out, by definition, by random. Either God is using (moral) reasoning to apportion grace or God is not. There is no excluded middle here, I am afraid.

What we should be doing here is being warned of the common apologist trick: answer one problem nebulously with another problem.

So Hoffer tries to say that whilst God might not be fair, he is just. Before I go on, I suggest Hoffer reads up on, say, John Rawls and his “Fair Equality of Opportunity” (FEO), where fairness is part of justice norms. That is to say, separating out fairness and justice here is a dubious (one might say unjustified…) move. He also, as previously pointed out, confuses equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, and this is almost certainly what underwrites such a move. My thesis concerns FEO.

(Side bar: Rawls, John, 1999, A Theory of Justice, revised edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Rawls, John, 2001, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, edited by Erin Kelly, Cambridge, Harvard University Press. This second book, Justice as Fairness, is somewhat political and economic in scope, but the general principle can be applied here, as set out in the 1971 essay of the same name: ‘This explains the propriety of the name “justice as fairness”: it conveys the idea that the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair.’ p.2)

Justice and fairness are enmeshed, sadly for Hoffer’s thesis. This is because one must surely deserve grace based on something that is either faith or works – if you don’t deserve grace then it is, by definition, unfair (given God’s knowledge and intentions). Let us park works for the tie being.  Let’s think about faith qua belief:

  1. People believe in God based on God’s free apportioning of grace.
  2. Grace is not apportioned randomly. Grace is therefore deserved by an agent in some way.
  3. An agent is made up of what they do and what they believe.
  4. An agent believes depending on evidence, and… grace? If so, circle back to (1).

The whole enterprise looks circular and thoroughly problematic. If God was being just (and not fair..??) as Hoffer hints, then God would give an agent grace it was just that they were given it.

Just finally, he also says of grace (and I will ignore or the free will stuff sd I have previously discussed this):

That is where your definition of fairness fails. Your notion of fairness does not account for God’s generosity, mercy, or grace. In truth, these things are wholly foreign to our human notions of equality-fairness. Simply put, your vaunted utilitarianism can not account for either mercy or grace.

Wow, not sure about this. Just remember that my “vaunted utilitarianism” is employed every time you give a theodicy, and that includes in this very scenario. I don’t know what you mean that it can’t account for grace. It can, but first you would need to define what grace is, how it works (causally and in an interactionist manner and language), and how God apportions it justly or fairly.

Here’s a stab: God is moral and just, fairly giving people what they deserve, including grace. He can do this out of sheer nature – whereby it is utterly devoid of moral reasoning (See “16 Problems with Divine Command Theory“, a few problems of which revolve around the lack of moral reasoning with divine command theory and acting off divine nature alone). Either God acts from divine nature and there is no moral reasoning to morally justify actions (so you can’t answer why rape or murder is bad using moral reasoning, it’s just “because it’s part of God’s nature that it is so”), or there is moral reasoning for actions. If there is moral reasoning, one form might be consequentialism. God wants to justly or fairly apportion grace because it is right to do so. Why is it right? Because it shows that God is just and fair, works as a moral exemplar to humanity, and this exemplification motivates people in the world to become just and fair, itself leading to greater social well-being. An unfairness will exemplify that humans don’t matter, that consistency is not important, and it devalues the importance of justice and fairness in society, itself leading to worsening social well-being.

That’s just me thinking out loud. You could reformulate that in any number of ways.

While God freely offers grace to all in some form, not everyone chooses to accept it.

Why? On what basis? Free will again. Gah. I appeal to Hoffer to lay this out coherently or not to make the claim at all.

God accepts that because He respects the exercise of our free will (Because of His foreknowledge, HE has already accepted it.) However, if we seek goodness or happiness, we are in reality seeking Him as opposed to material things. If we seek Truth, we seek Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If we seek to treat others the same way we hope to be treated ourselves, we are, in reality, worshipping God. Classical theism holds to the notion of the Imago Dei. Even if we fail to see God in creation, we still see Him every day in our neighbor, for all of us are made in His image. If we truly love others, we are, in reality, loving God.

Just wondering, is that consequentialism there? Heh. Also, the stuff before – free will again.

And all things being equal, these are things every person, regardless of their identity, attributes, and circumstances, can seek.

What? Seeking literally is dependent upon attributes and circumstances. He is seemingly saying, no matter who you are, what situation you are in, what characteristics you have, you can do X. In other words, take out all causal components to your life; you can still do X in causal circumstance 1 (CC1). Unfettered nonsense. Any outcome in any CC is dependent upon the CC! That I chose to go on holiday to Turkey and not Croatia in CC1 or believed in God in CC3 are determined by CC1 and CC3! Even if you believe in free will, no one denies causal efficacy of literally the entire universe up until the moment of any given action! We don’t make decisions or do anything completely absent of causal determinants! No one believes this. No one.

The nebulous employment of “can” here is what is important, I guess. And in theory, an Amazonian tribesman in 1000 BCE can seek Yahweh…?

According to your standards, it might not be fair that God chooses to give some people more grace than others, but there it is. God’s notion of fairness is not the same as yours.

  1. It is unfair.
  2. Oh, I get it, just deal with it!
  3. but God is being fair, just not my idea of fair.

So, here’s the thing Paul Hoffer. You tell me what my idea of fairness is (but please don’t misrepresent me and try to be accurate), tell me why it is morally good that God does not operate to my fairness. This is important because surely everything God does is good, right? I mean, he’s not morally bad, I presume. So, if he decides not to operate to my idea of fairness, that is because my idea of fairness is not morally good, or not maximally good. So once you’ve established that, then give me an account of why it is morally good that God apportions grace, evidence, and equality of opportunity to access God in differing amounts (qua unfairly).

I don’t know if I have the energy to continue this since I am only 10,000 words through his 20,000… so next one I will skip to the end. Which I just did. and saw this humdinger:

God does not have to be fair in this life, only in the next.

Holy nutsacks. If I’d known he was going to use this, I would have already posted this:

Heaven Is Not a Moral Justification

Except, I already did in one of my previous pieces, expecting that he could make exactly this move. He did. Predictable, eh? Heaven in compensation, not moral justification. It is only moral justification if you employ consequentialism. Turns out I said:

Any person without sufficient evidence who does not believe is not given that extra evidence by God to believe. And yet, other people with less evidence do believe. There are believers with less evidence than Thomas, so this is not controversial. God definitely affords different people different levels of evidence, and some absolutely none.

And please don’t give me the heaven as a recalibration dodge: See “Heaven Is Not a Moral Justification“.

He basically says “God is unfair on Monday, but he is fair on balance over the week.”

Or, God is fair. It’s just that his justification is the promissory note of heaven, a move that relies on “vaunted” consequentialism. Oh dear.

For lots of other ruminations about the god of classical theism, please grab a copy of my very reasonably priced book The Problem with “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight. [UK]

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...