To me there are three kinds of atheists, in a broad sense. First there are the lazy ones who simply want little certainty. The trouble with certainty is that, once it is manifest, you have to take a position. They prefer the vague and uncertain. Then no commitments are necessary and life can be pretty well lived as I see fit. If there is no God then I am god. I will do what I want to do and I will decide what is right and wrong. This is the lazy atheist. They have little reason for their unbelief other than as a premise for doing what they please.
The second kind of atheist is the “intellectual” atheist who claims that there is no proof for the existence of God. They tend to be materialists in that everything that is real to them must be physical, touchable and physically observable and measurable. Science, which is the study of the physical and measurable is therefore (for them) just about the only validator of truth. Thus when they claim that there is no evidence for God they usually mean scientific evidence. It seems to me that they live in a rather narrowly described world as the though the physical was all that was real. Even what most of us call spiritual, concepts like love, justice, appreciation of beauty, longing, conscience, desire. These too get reduced by them to phenomena of the brain, brain mapping, anthropological archetypes and the like. But alas, their time may be running short as modern science and physics keep bumping up against and blurring the line between physics and metaphysics. Quantum isn’t as “clean” in its distinctions and is moving the discussion in very new directions. This second sort of atheist may be walking with his science into terra incognita very soon.
And then there is the troubled and dare I say, “thoughtful” atheist who does truly struggle with some aspect of God or religion and this struggle leaves them unsatisfied. All the answers of scripture and organized religions to their questions are somehow inadequate. The biggest single issue is the “problem of evil.” If there is a God who is omnipotent and omniscient how can he tolerate evil, injustice, and suffering of the innocent? Where is God when a young girl is raped, when genocide is committed, when evil men hatch their plots? Why Did God even conceive the evil ones and let them be born?
The problem of evil cannot be simply answered. It is a mystery. It’s purpose and why God permits it are caught up in our limited vision and understanding. The scriptures say how “all things work together for the good of those who love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes.” But how this is so is difficult for us to see in many circumstances. Anyone who have ever suffered tragic and senseless loss or observed the disproportionate suffering that some must endure cannot help but ask, why? And the answers aren’t all that satisfying to many for suffering is ultimately mysterious in many ways.
I have some respect for atheists of this third sort. I do not share their struggle but I understand and respect its depths and the dignity of the question. At the end of the trail of questions, often asked in anguish, is God who has not chosen to supply simple answers. Perhaps if he were our simple minds could not comprehend them anyway. We are left simply to decide, often in the face of great evil and puzzling suffering, that God exists or not.
As in the days of Job, we cry out for answers but little is forthcoming. In the Book of Job, God speaks from a whirlwind and He questions Job’s ability to even ask the right questions let alone venture and answer to the problem and presence of evil and suffering. In the end he is God and we are not. This must be enough and we must look to the reward that awaits the faithful with trust.
The final and most perplexing aspect of suffering is its uneven distribution. In America we suffer little in comparison to many other parts of the world. Further, even here, some skate through life strong and sleek, wealthy and well fed. Others suffering crippling disease, inexplicable and sudden losses, financial setbacks, and burdens. It is a true fact that a lot of our suffering comes from bad choices, substance abuse and lack of self-control. But some suffering seems unrelated to any of this. And the most difficult suffering to accept is that caused on the innocent by third parties who seem to suffer no penalty. Parents who mistreat or neglect their children, the poor who are exploited and used, caught in schemes others have made, perhaps it is corrupt governments, perhaps unscrupulous industries.
Suffering is hard to explain or accept simply. I think this just has to be admitted. Simple slogans and quick answers are seldom sufficient in the face of great evil and suffering. Perhaps when interacting with an atheist of this third kind, sympathy, understanding and a call to humility goes farther than forceful rebuttal.
A respectful exposition of the Christian understanding of evil might include some of the following points. Note, these are not explanations per se (for suffering is a great mystery) and they are humble for they admit of their own limits.
- The Scriptures teach that God created a world that was as a paradise. Though we only get a brief glimpse of it, it seems clear that death and suffering were not part of the garden.
- But even there the serpent coiled from the branch of a tree called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and EVIL. So even in paradise the mystery of evil lurked in minimal form.
- In a way the tree and the serpent had to be there. For we were made to love. And love requires freedom and freedom requires choices. The Yes of love must permit of the No of sin. In our rebellious “no” both we and the world unravelled, death and chaos entered in. Paradise was lost and a far more hostile and unpredictable world remained. From this fact came all of the suffering and evil we endure. Our sins alone cause an enormous amount of suffering on this earth, by my reckoning that vast majority of it. Of the suffering caused by natural phenomenon this too is linked to sin, Original Sin, wherein we preferred to reign in a hellish imitation rather than serve in the real paradise.
- This link of evil and suffering to human freedom also explains God’s usual non-intervention in evil matters. To do so routinely makes an abstraction of human freedom and thus removes a central pillar of love. But here too there is mystery for the scriptures frequently recount how God does intervene to put an end to evil plots, to turn back wars, shorten famines and plagues. Why does he sometimes intervene and sometimes not? Why do prayers of deliverance sometimes get answered and sometimes not? Here too there is a mystery of providence.
- The lengthiest Biblical treatise on suffering is the Book of Job and there God shows an almost shocking lack of sympathy for Job’s questions and sets a lengthy foundation for the conclusion that the mind of man is simply incapable of seeing into the depths of this problem. God saw fit that Job’s faith be tested and strengthened. But in the end Job is restored and re-established with even greater blessings in a kind of foretaste of what is meant by heaven.
- The First Letter of Peter also explains suffering in this way: In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7) In other words, our sufferings purify and prepare us to meet God.
- Does this mean that those who suffer more need more purification? Not necessarily. It could also mean that a greater glory is waiting for them. For the Scriptures teach Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison(2 Cor 4:16-17) Hence suffering “produces” glory in the world to come. With this insight, those who suffer more, but with faith, will have greater glory in the world to come.
- Regarding the apparent injustice of uneven suffering it will be noted that the Scriptures teach of a great reversal wherein many who are last shall be first (Mat 20:16), where the mighty will be cast down and the lowly exulted, where the rich will go away empty and poor be filled. (Luke 1:52-53) In this sense it is not necessarily an blessing to rich and well fed, unaccustomed to any suffering. For in the great reversal the first will be last. The only chance the rich and well healed have to avoid this is to be generous and kind to the poor and those who suffer (1 Tim:6:17-18).
- Finally, as to God’s apparent insensitivity to suffering we can only point to Christ who did not exempt himself from the suffering we chose by leaving Eden. He suffered mightily and unjustly but also showed that this would be a way home to paradise.
To these points I am sure you will add. But be careful with the problem of evil and suffering. It has mysterious dimensions which must be respected. Simple answers may not help an atheist of this sort. Understanding and an exposition that shows forth the Christian struggle to come to grips with this may be the best way. The “answer” of scripture requires faith but the answer appeals to reason and justice calls us to humility before a great mystery of which we see only a little. The appeal to humility before a mystery may command greater respect from an atheist of this sort than pat answers which may tend to alienate.
Here is the video which got me thinking all this. I saw it over at Patrick Madrid’s Blog. He posted it as a reason why you shouldn’t let you kids watch MTV. I agree, don’t let them! But the video is a kind of cry to God from an atheist who is struggling with the problem of evil. Not every charge leveled in the video is fair but overall it illustrates well the problem of evil and suffering from an atheist perspective. It is not a view I share, but has one who has struggled alongside with some who have experienced appalling suffering and evil I cannot simply dismiss questions like those asked in this video. Another disclaimer, I have no idea who XTC is and have heard none of his other works. Posting this video amounts to no endorsement by me of any sort. It is not an easy video to watch.