Facing Evil: Why Christians and Atheists Need Each Other
The biggest and most difficult problem for both Christians and atheists is the problem of evil. Consequently, each side can learn something about the depth of the problem by viewing it from the perspective of the other.
Everybody knows that there are two topics to be avoided in polite conversation: politics and religion. The incendiary nature of political discussion is well illustrated in the ongoing and intractable disputes between Republicans and Democrats. But if politics is volatile, religion is even more so. As a Christian theologian and apologist, I’ve been both fascinated and dismayed by this situation, particularly as it has emerged in the debate between Christians and atheists.
The volatility of that debate is captured in the bumper sticker that declares “April 1st is Atheist Day. Psalm 14:1”. The allusion to April Fool’s Day is a nod to the psalmist’s declaration that “The fool has said in his heart there is no God”. From there, the Christian draws a quick conclusion that all atheists must therefore be fools. Not to be outdone, many atheists are quick to return the favor: Richard Dawkins, for example, is well known for deriding Christians as “faith heads”.
Calling each other names from across the aisle may be reassuring as it reminds us once again just how right we are. But it does so at the cost of failing to hear what the other has to say. And this brings us to the unsettling but undeniable fact that there are deeply thoughtful and intelligent people out there who disagree with you and me on some of the very biggest and most important questions there are. If you dare to engage with those folk in a real dialogue you will soon find that prepared labels like “fool” and “faith head” no longer seem quite so appropriate.
I would submit that the biggest and most difficult problem for both Christians and atheists is the problem of evil. Consequently, each side can learn something about the depth of the problem by viewing it from the perspective of the other.
Evil as a Christian’s problem
Christian theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil for centuries. Their efforts have often been focused on the difficulties created by the fact that they confess belief in a God who is simultaneously all-powerful and all-good. The resulting problem isn’t hard to see. If God is all-powerful, then he should be able to prevent all evil. And if he is all-good then he should want to prevent all evil. So why then is there evil?
The problem of evil is difficult enough when it is stated in the clipped manner of a philosophical conundrum. But we are not simply talking about “evil” as some abstract concept in a logical argument. Instead, the word “evil” here stands for all the horrors that we see on a daily basis. If God is all-powerful and all-good then why does he allow those specific evils? If we are going to appreciate the depth of that question, we must descend into thick descriptions of the real, lived evils of history.