The ‘problem of evil’ in Christian apologetics is and has been one of the top apologetic issues throughout history. Many have pointed to the attacks on 9/11 (September 11, 2001) as a turning point in our generation concerning this issue. The ‘New Atheists’ (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) began writing their – soon to be popular – books not long after this event. For the atheist, it was the confirmation that religion was truly dangerous. For the rest of us, it brought us face to face with evil in a way many of us had not experienced in our lives of relatively peaceful existence. One’s worldview needed to be able to deal with this kind of event. I believe that when people were actually faced with the reality of this kind of evil, many found their position wanting and began to either search for answers, or to focus the problem on someone else. As Christians, we should be prepared to provide answers.
First, a note of caution: when dealing with evil and suffering, there is a time to ponder it, and come to good philosophical and intellectual conclusions about it, but there is also a time when one is in the midst of grief and suffering. When dealing with evil in the latter sense, it might be best to consider the Biblical book of Job and just ‘be there’ and ‘walk with’ the suffering person. Having this problem worked out before hand will often help in those situations, but usually isn’t helpful to work through in the moment. The best comfort in these times is to know God is in control and that as Christians we know how the story ends!
Whose problem is it?
This seems like a strange question to ask. Certainly evil is everyone’s problem, right? Well, yes it is, but this question gets at a problem specific to non-theistic worldviews such as atheism. Under atheism, one cannot really have true evil. There can be things which one does not like or that are not beneficial, but these things ultimately just ARE. For something to be good, or conversely evil, there has to be real objective morality, which in-turn requires an objective moral law giver. For example, 2+2=4 is correct and therefore might be ‘good’ in some sense, or at least better than 2+2=5, but there is no morality involved. Making a particular chess move might be ‘good’ or better if the goal is to win the chess game, than making a move which loses the game; but again, there is no morality involved. This is about the extent of ‘good’ available to the atheist. It is simply a pragmatic good, not a moral one. To take this to an absurd level in order to make the distinction, if a rapist passed on some genes which advanced the human species, it would have to be considered, on the whole, good in the atheist worldview, no matter if it is distasteful in society.(1) But what about the morality of such an action?
When an atheist brings up the problem of evil, it is first a good idea to evaluate why the challenge is being advanced. If the atheist is (like many New Atheists are) complaining about the evil they see in the world, it is fair to challenge this assertion based on the above discussion. In THEIR worldview, evil has no real weight or place. They are borrowing from the theist in order to lodge their complaints. At best, on their worldview, they can complain that they don’t like what is going on in the world around them, but it becomes a matter of ‘tough cookies!’ or ‘deal with it’. Or, to be more diplomatic, it is fair to say, ‘I agree, I don’t like that either,’ and then do some pushing on that hole in their worldview. Maybe ask how they can have evil without God. Isn’t this just the way things are? As you read New Atheists’ writings in the area of ethics, you will soon find determinism lurking close to the surface. I don’t see any other choice for them, so I appreciate their honesty. One can only put an illusory veneer of ‘choice and behavior’ on top of this determinism of the atheist worldview.
The ‘New Atheists’ especially seem to like to do a lot of this invalid type of complaining about evil. I believe someone said of Sam Harris, that he is really sure there is no God, and he is really, really mad at Him! Their writings are loaded with objections to what sure looks like real evil to me.
However, the atheist might also be basing the challenge on the Christian worldview. In other words, she might be taking Christianity for a test-drive, so to speak, to see how evil fits. She can’t seem to make it work and is issuing this challenge to the Christian. It is basically a matter of, ‘evil isn’t a problem in my worldview, but I can’t see how evil can fit into a Christian worldview with a loving God.’ This is the kind of challenge we need to address because it is valid.
(Continued in Part 2)
A couple of books I have read and recommend:
Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil by John G. Stackhouse Jr.
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
1. It has been pointed out to me that an atheist would not have to come to this conclusion, as they have various options for generating ethics systems to choose from. A better way for me to say this is that they would have a hard time standing up against such a notion, as I don’t see how they would ground the opposition.
This article was first published at TilledSoil.org. Copyright © 2013 TilledSoil.org. All rights reserved.
(Note: This article was originally posted on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, but the subject matter is always relevant. The article has been modified from the original, and broken into three parts due to length.)