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.

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.”

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