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.
BY: Randal Rauser
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.
As I write this I think immediately of the recent Boston bombings. And I find that one specific image pops uninvited into my mind. It is the stomach churning scene of that dazed young man Jeff Bauman sitting in a wheelchair with his legs blown off. And I ask why?
If God is all-good then he doesn’t want his beloved creatures to suffer unnecessarily. And if he is all-powerful then he surely could prevent such suffering. And yet, in this case he did nothing to divert the trajectory of the bomb shrapnel that ripped apart the legs of this kind young man. So what do I say? God wasn’t good enough to protect Jeff and the other victims? Or he wasn’t powerful enough to do so? If he was both, then why didn’t he?
Some Christians are not particularly troubled by these kinds of questions. They are content to trust God knowing that he surely must have a reason for allowing such evils. I respect that kind of faith. But respecting the faith of some doesn’t mean I have to disrespect the doubt of others. Indeed, I find myself often sympathizing with the doubters. With then I ask, how God could possibly be justified in allowing the evil and suffering of the Boston marathon, or the collapsed sweatshop in Bangladesh, or the unthinkable massacre at Newtown? The more I meditate on the thick description of those horrors, the more I find myself filled with confusion, anger and helplessness. And the more I understand those who find themselves with doubts and even disbelief.
Evil as an atheist’s problem
Evil may be a daunting problem for the Christian theist, but it remains a very deep problem for the atheist as well. To appreciate the problem, take a step back for a moment and consider the atheistic account of human origins and destiny. At this point I’ll defer to a 2008 interview Woody Allen gave with Macleans Magazine in which he succinctly and powerfully describes his own atheistic view of the universe:
“My own personal conclusion concurs with what seems to be the everyday finding of our physicists, that it was an accident, that it will end, and it was just an odd little phenomenon that has no meaning, that [it] wasn’t created by any super-being or with any design, it’s just a chance phenomenon and a microspeck in an overwhelming, violent universe, and it will end, and everything that Shakespeare did and Beethoven did, all of that will be gone, and every planet will be gone, every star will be gone—down the line—but that’s where we’re headed, out of nothing to nothing. And yet the trick, to me, seems to be to find, not meaning, but to be able to live with that and to enjoy life.”
Wow, now that’s bleak. Out of nothing and to nothing. Given that kind of vision it is hardly surprising that the most Allen can offer is for us to try to cope and find some happiness before we’re snuffed out.
Allen’s worldview runs directly into the problem of evil in two ways. To begin with, there is the shattering offense of evil. It seems to me that the breathtaking revulsion we experience when seeing Jeff Bauman being wheeled through the streets of Boston, his legs blown to ribbons by the unspeakable actions of terrorists, signals something about the perceived worth of human beings. We recognize at that moment that this is an objectively evil act, one that has marred a valued and loved creature of God. In Judeo-Christian theology we capture this sense of the worth of human beings with the declaration that we have been made in the image of God. Consequently the victimization and violation of a human being in a terrorist attack constitutes an offense against God and the universe he made.