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.”

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.

But if we are merely “an odd little phenomenon that has no meaning”, a “microspeck” from nothing and headed back to nothing, then murder and mayhem don’t present an offense against the order of the universe or a violation of intrinsic worth. Instead, the suffering of those in the Boston bombing is merely one more momentary, inconsequential occurrence in an overwhelming, violent universe.

And that brings me to the second point, that of hope. If Woody Allen is right, then where is the hope? Where is the hope for the victims of the Boston bombing? For the workers in the Bangladesh building collapse? For the parents and children of Newtown? Where is the hope for any of us that we will one day be delivered from the evils we experience and witness every day?

Why we need each other

It seems to me that when facing a problem as great and existentially consuming as evil, we need all the help we can get. And in this endeavor, I find myself drawn to the old adage: as iron sharpens iron. The atheist challenges the Christian to grapple with the depth of evil not only as an abstract concept to be reconciled to two divine attributes. Instead, the Christian must face evil in all its horror as she considers why God would allow such agonizing pain and injustice.

But this is no moment of triumphalism for the atheist who is forced to consider whether his own view is adequate to ground the sense of an objective offense in the experience of evil, and the ultimate hope of deliverance from it.

I would hope and expect that through genuine dialogue each side will find themselves moving beyond labels like “fool” and “faith head” as they are challenged to think through the problem of evil with a new depth of rigor and intellectual honesty. And from there we can turn to work together to the next step of fighting the evils we find in our midst.

god or godlessRandal Rauser is co-author of a new book entitled God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. With Randal presenting the Christian side and John W. Loftus presenting the atheist side, they seek to engage in civil conversation to help those with differing beliefs understand each other’s point of view.

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