Apologetic Methods, apologetics, Evidentialism

Doubts about Evidentialism? C. Stephen Evans and a fideistic problem for evidentialists

GoulburnStSaviour'sCathedralI’ve been reading through a few books related to apologetic methodology and epistemology of late. Most recently, I have finished Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account by C. Stephen Evans. One thing that struck me in the book was a brief discussion of a possible difficulty with evidentialism as an apologetic methodology. Evidentialism is, essentially, the notion that apologetics should be based upon evidences to convince unbelievers of the truth of Christianity.* Evans himself did not direct a specific attack against the method, but some of his work could be perceived as a critique of the method. Specifically, he discussed Kierkegaard’s rejection of evidentialism:

[Kierkegaard] wants to argue that if you want something like an eternal happiness more than anything else, then it may be reasonable to commit yourself wholeheartedly to something that promises to help you obtain it, even if the chances of obtaining what you seek are not high because the objective probability that eternal happiness is truly to be gained in this way is not high either. (Evans, 108, cited below)

The thrust of this point is that one may, perhaps, rationally commit to a belief when the risk/reward is at a certain level. It’s a little similar to Pascal’s Wager, but Evans has more in mind than this: “[I]f your desire for this good is high enough… then even a very low probability would be sufficient to motivate belief” (ibid). The argument is therefore more subtle than a simple risk/reward scenario.** Instead, Evans’ point (or at least his exegetical point regarding Kierkegaard) is that one’s own desires play into commitment to beliefs, and that this is not itself an irrational thing.

Yet this point may seem a bit devastating to evidentialists. After all, evidentialists would generally hold that one should not believe without sufficient evidence, and that theistic arguments are strong enough to convince others to believe. If, however, one may grant that it may be reasonable to hold to beliefs even if there is a very low probability on the basis of one’s desire for a certain end, then it seems that evidentialism may itself be a faulty grasping for rationalistic certainty.

Within Kierkegaard’s own context, he was certainly reacting against rationalism. But evidentialism is not reducible to stark rationalism. Rather, it is a method not only of apologetics but also of epistemic investigation, depending upon one’s usage. Perhaps the evidentialist may acknowledge that one may rationally commit to a position–say, theistic belief–based upon one’s desire for that great good, but that does not preclude evidences for that belief. More importantly, the evidentialist may introduce the concept of a defeater–a belief which may serve to disprove or make another belief more improbable. Once one has been presented with defeaters, one may not rationally cling to one’s belief simply because one desires the truth of it; instead, one must either defeat the defeaters themselves or have sufficient evidence to hold to the belief in spite of possible evidence against it.

It therefore seems to me that arguments like Kierkegaard’s point does not do much to discredit evidentialism. Rather, it merely provides a possibility for people to hold beliefs in the absence of evidence either way. Once one has evidence against one’s belief, however, one should–at risk of epistemic suicide–either ground one’s belief or show that the evidence against that belief is not firmly grounded. Evans seems to acknowledge this as well, for he noted the value of evidence despite the possibility for “properly basic” belief.

Of course the question of whether one “should” think one way or another is itself highly contentious. I’ll leave that debate for another post or, even better, the comments.

*Yes, I do realize I’ve vastly oversimplified here. That’s the nature of writing shortish blog posts! For what I consider the best discussion of different apologetic methodologies, check out Faith Has Its Reasons by Boa and Bowman.

**I also acknowledge that Pascal’s Wager is more complex than a simple risk/reward scenario.


C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Reason & Religion) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998).


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.


6 thoughts on “Doubts about Evidentialism? C. Stephen Evans and a fideistic problem for evidentialists

  1. I’ve been beginning to explore epistemology as of late b/c I’ve realized how I think the problem I have is not so much related to arguments themselves. Finally bought “Faith And Rationality” (the famous Plantinga/Wolterstorff one) after all these years (loving Mavrodes’ contributions!) and have read the Counterpoints book on apologetic methods. Also getting into Nancey Pearcy a little and her take on why we believe what we do. Basically I am no apologist or philosopher but am wired to think that way (I lack any formal schooling specifically along these lines) but I would like to read a book or two which summarizes this sort of thing. The Counterpoints book was a little TOO focused on apologetics for what I want to learn. I will get “Faith Has Its Reasons” on your recommendation (I have a few Bowman books – I like his methodology overall) and have read Boa online but don’t know him very well.

    What would you say are the best two or three books that summarize the “why” of belief?


    Posted by Tim Henderson | May 5, 2014, 7:04 AM
    • “Faith Has Its Reasons” is entirely about apologetic methodology, so it is along the lines of the counterpoints book and even more expansive. I love the book, but its purpose is to outline an apologetic method as opposed to give reasons for belief, despite its title. If you’re looking for a few books about the “why” of belief, there are many I could recommend, but first: how scholarly are you looking for? Around the level of the counterpoints book or are you looking for some deep philosophical/etc. works?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 5, 2014, 12:31 PM
      • I realized I said Nancy Pearcey instead of Nancey Murphy – big difference! Murphy seems to be one of the few Christians trying to contribute to the evolutionary psychology/psychology of religion genre. That’s partially what I’m getting at when I say I want to learn more about the why, not the what. (I feel like I’ve heard enough apologetic “content” for a lifetime.) Epistemology overlaps what I am looking for, though I’m not looking for purely 100% philosophy. ANY kind of insight into why people believe what they do would be useful (even things like confirmation theory are interesting to me in this regard). The Counterpoints book touched on the why instead of what, as far as all authors making a point that belief was not simply mental assent, but the work of the Holy Spirit in some sense, so that one point connects with me. I don’t know how much one can say about that though, except that the Holy Spirit is involved to some degree!

        I am looking for great overall books that cover a lot of ground – I don’t need 300 pages on one highly-focused scientific theory of why we believe or something like the aforementioned epistemological “Faith and Rationality” – that’s waaay to specific. And any level is fine. If I eventually worked my way through The Nature of Necessity and God and Other Minds (given time), I can probably get through most of what you recommend. 😉


        Posted by Tim Henderson | May 5, 2014, 8:29 PM
      • Tim,

        Sorry for the delay in my response!

        To my knowledge there is very little development from the apologetic standpoint related to psychology of religion. I do have one rather large text but haven’t read it so I don’t really know whether it is worth recommending. It looks like that might be what you’re talking about here. Epistemology does have some overlapping here, and so any number of epistemology books could be recommended. I particularly enjoyed Plantinga’s “Warrant” series but that would take you far afield on some points.

        So yes, I perhaps am missing a bunch too, because it hasn’t really be an area of focus for me. I can try to see if some friends have recommendations though, if you’d like!

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 7, 2014, 10:04 PM
  2. Interestingly, when I click on your link to the Evans book, the book it says to get if I like that one is Francis Collins’ “Belief”. I’ve read that one and I don’t see how they are related, except on a very cursory level. Guess that’s what happens when a computer tells you what to buy!

    Posted by Tim Henderson | May 5, 2014, 7:09 AM
  3. Kierkegaard is my favorite philosopher, and has had huge influence on me personally and spiritually. I haven’t heard of this book, but I most certainly will check it out. I always am defending SK to folks who only hear rhetoric about him, and have not actually read or give him a fair shake in their personal time. Nice review!

    Posted by deathtoallpoets | May 5, 2014, 1:51 PM

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