The Problem of Evil and Suffering for Atheism

The most powerful argument against belief in God is the problem of evil and suffering. Its basic form goes like this:

  • If God is all-powerful He could prevent evil and suffering.
  • If God is all-good He would prevent evil and suffering.
  • But evil and suffering exist.
  • Therefore an all-powerful and all-good God does not exist.

In a previous post I explained that while the existence of evil and suffering poses a puzzle for believers (one that my wife and I are dealing with as she faces Stage 4 cancer), this puzzle does not disprove God’s existence.  In this post I want to flip the argument around as a problem for atheists by focusing on the third premise: “But evil and suffering exist.”

Last week I looked at the implications of atheism set forth by atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg in his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Rosenberg believes that all that exists is the material world – particles of matter. Of course this means that there is no God, but as Rosenberg explains, it means much more than that. It also means that certain features of our existence that seem to be true, such as free will or consciousness or introspection, do not exist, either. That’s why his book is subtitled Enjoying Life Without Illusions. Free will and consciousness are merely illusions. All that really exists is the brain, and what we take to be experiences of consciousness are actually nothing more than the physical processes of the brain that are completely determined by the laws of physics.

Rosenberg freely acknowledges that this also means that good and evil do not exist.

We have to acknowledge (to ourselves, at least) that many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any. These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations. Many enlightened people, including many scientists, think that reasonable people can eventually find the right answers to such questions. Alas, it will turn out that all anyone can really find are the answers that they like. The same goes for those who disagree with them. Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores. But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers. There are none (p. 96).

If this is so, then there is a major problem with the premise, “But evil and suffering exist.” If Rosenberg is right, evil does not exist. Not even the Holocaust – the premier exhibit of the problem of evil – can be described as evil. Rosenberg concedes that his view of morality – nihilism (the belief that morality, meaning, and purpose do not exist) – “can’t condemn Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot,” or anyone else (p. 98). The best Rosenberg can say is that fortunately, most people share a core morality that leads them to be nice, and that the real problem with the Nazis was “their wildly false factual beliefs about Jews” (p. 106, his emphasis).

This doesn’t really help Rosenberg, however, because four pages later he acknowledges that “natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs” (p. 110). In fact, his view is that according to evolution “racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted” by Mother Nature (p. 111). This means that:

If the environment had been very different, another moral core would have been selected for, perhaps even the dog-eat-dog morality…(p. 113).

This point was brought home to me recently while watching the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. In the alternate history of the series, the Axis powers won World War II, and Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan rule the east and west coasts of America. In the first episode, one of the main characters blows out a tire in Nazi-controlled America. A Nazi police officer pulls off to help, and while they are talking, white flakes begin to fall from the sky. It isn’t snow – its ashes from the local hospital, where the terminally ill have been put to death and incinerated.

As a Christian, I believe that this is immoral and would be so in all possible worlds. But according to Rosenberg, this isn’t really evil, and in fact, if the evolutionary process had taken a different route, incinerating the weak and infirm might have been the “moral” belief that was chosen by natural selection. And so,

We have to accept that core morality was selected for, but we have to give up the idea that core morality is true in any sense (p. 113).

This means that an atheist cannot make the argument that “evil exists,” at least not in any meaningful sense.

But there is another aspect to the problem of evil – the problem of suffering. It isn’t just that women are raped, or children are murdered, or babies die from disease – it is that those who experience such evils also consciously suffer. As much as Kristi and I wrestle with the challenges of her illness, what breaks our heart is to see little children who are afflicted with this horrible disease. The suffering of little children is intolerable.

And yet, according to the radical materialism of Rosenberg, experiences like “colors, sounds, pains, smells, touches” do not really exist (p. 234). These are features of consciousness, but conscious experiences are only an illusion. Why? Because all that exists is matter (what he called “clumps of stuff”), and clumps of stuff aren’t conscious of anything.

“When consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong” (p. 179, his emphasis).

In this light, it makes no sense for anyone to believe they are consciously suffering. We do not have thoughts about anything – including how much pain we are in. The most that we could say – as another materialist philosopher put it – is that “My C-fibers are firing.”

A couple of years ago I went to see an orthopedist about my knees. His assistant took some x-rays, then led me into the exam room. After a few minutes the doctor came in, looked at my X-rays, mumbled to himself while shaking his head, then turned to me and said (in an ominous voice), “You have many reasons to feel pain.” He sounded like a James Bond villain!

But of course, according to the perspective of Rosenberg, I do not consciously experience pain – that is impossible in principle. What the doctor should have said is, “Your C-fibers should be firing.” There can be physical processes, but not any kind of conscious suffering. And it would never make sense for the doctor or nurses to ask how much pain I am in – personal consciousness of pain is merely an illusion.

So then, consider once more this premise: But evil and suffering exist.

What Rosenberg says in his book is that neither assertion is true. “Evil” doesn’t exist because morality doesn’t exist. And “suffering” doesn’t exist because consciousness doesn’t exist. Since this is the key premise in the argument against belief in God, and since this premise is incoherent on Rosenberg’s account of evil and suffering, the argument fails.

It seems to me that atheists face three choices here:

  • Agree with Rosenberg that evil and suffering do not exist and concede that the argument fails.
  • Agree with Rosenberg that evil and suffering do not exist and change the premise to: “But according to Christians, evil and suffering exist.”
  • Disagree with Rosenberg’s contention that evil and suffering do not exist.

I suspect that most atheists would prefer the third option. I have met very few unbelievers who deny the reality of evil and suffering. But I am curious how “evil” and “suffering” can be coherently defined given the implications of pure materialism. That is the problem of evil and suffering for atheism.

Is the Resurrection of Jesus a Legend?

The Entombment, by Rembrandt

This coming Sunday is a time of the year when even the nominally religious give homage to the resurrection of Jesus.  But if the polling data is correct, the percentage of Americans who believe in the claims of Christianity is rapidly shrinking. A common view of the resurrection is that it is a legend that developed over time among those who loved and revered Jesus. This is the view of Pentecostal preacher turned atheist Dan Barker:

There have been many reasons for doubting the claim [of the resurrection], but the consensus among critical scholars today appears to be that the story is a “legend.” During the 60-70 years it took for the Gospels to be composed, the original story went through a growth period that began with the unadorned idea that Jesus, like Grandma, had “died and gone to heaven” and ended with a fantastic narrative produced by a later generation of believers that included earthquakes, angels, an eclipse, a resuscitated corpse, and a spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.

Is this the best explanation of the data? In this post I want to offer three reasons why the resurrection of Jesus is not in fact a legend. Continue reading

The Inerrancy of Scripture and the Basis of Our Faith

In the fall of 1990 I engaged in a televised debate with a professor from Eastern Kentucky University over the question of the inerrancy of Scripture. Is the Bible without error in all that it teaches? I defended the affirmative. My opponent was a Southern Baptist who was outraged by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s recent shift toward belief in inerrancy as an expectation for its faculty. I was invited to participate in the debate because I penned a letter to the editor in response to an op-ed piece of his in the Lexington Herald-Leader. I don’t think I realized at the time that my opponent, Dr. James Robert Miller, was the head of the philosophy and religion department at EKU. I wasn’t even finished with my master’s degree! But young and foolish as I was, when the host of the tv program told me he had tried to get twenty other people to represent the inerrancy view and they declined, I felt like I should do it. Besides, the show was going to air really early on Saturday morning, so I figured that if I blew it, no one would know!

I was happy to defend inerrancy then, and I am glad to do so now. It is the view of Scripture implied by the testimony of Jesus in passages like John 10:35 – “Scripture cannot be broken.” Since Jesus is Lord, His word on the matter is authoritative. Continue reading

Scarlet Robe or Purple Robe (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)

Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, Édouard Manet

Yesterday a good friend of mine forwarded along an article about an alleged discrepancy in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. The apparent contradiction has to do with the color of the robe the soldiers placed on Jesus while they were mocking Him.

Matthew’s account says:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand (Matthew 27:27-29).

Mark’s gospel says:

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (15:16-18).

Finally, John’s account puts it like this:

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robeThey came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands (19:1-3).

The article that my friend forwarded to me explained this difference by proposing that the gospel writers were describing the same thing, but that perhaps in the sunlight the colors looked different to them. Maybe what seemed like more of a scarlet color to Matthew looked more like purple to Mark and John. My friend was not satisfied with this explanation, though, since the gospels give no indication that Matthew, Mark, and John all witnessed this event. So if this explanation doesn’t work, how should we approach this problem? Continue reading

Most To Be Pitied

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is (Pascal, Pensées, #233)

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Pascal’s wager is one of those rare ideas in philosophy that non-philosophers normal people instinctively intuit. I remember a conversation with a friend in high school who was wavering about the truth of Christianity in which I suggested a similar “wager.” If Christianity is true and you accept it, you gain an infinite blessing, but if it is false and you accept it, what have you lost? Only this brief life. At times, I even took this line of reasoning a step further – “if there is no God, living like a Christian is still the best way to enjoy a happy life.”

There is something to be said for this train of thought. It places the issue of eternity front and center, and it raises the contrast between finite consequences and infinite consequences. Anything that makes the people of our secular age contemplate life beyond this one has some value. And it is true that life in Christ brings many blessings in the here and now (Luke 18:29-30).

But I wonder about the legitimacy of this sort of wager.

Continue reading

The “God of the Gaps” vs the God of the Bible

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. —   William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

The most famous example of the argument for God’s existence on the basis of design is Paley’s “watchmaker” illustration. The assumption of such an argument is that there are certain complex systems in the natural world that cannot be explained by natural means and therefore require a super-natural designer.

Critics of this argument have pointed out that just because a complex system may not be explicable on natural grounds at the present moment, that doesn’t mean such an explanation doesn’t exist. Future scientific inquiry may uncover one. In other words, the God of these sorts of design arguments is a “God-of-the-gaps,” a God whose work is limited to the gaps in our current scientific understanding of natural processes. As scientific understanding grows, the “gaps” shrink, and thus God Himself becomes irrelevant.

Continue reading

Gird Up!

Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13, King James Version).

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13, English Standard Version).

One of the classic movies of my high school years was The Karate Kid (what kid of the 80’s hasn’t done a crane kick pose?!). If you’ve never seen the movie, it’s the story of a young, scrawny kid named Daniel who moves to California and immediately runs afoul of a gang of bullies from a local karate dojo, “the Cobra Kai.” Just when it looks like Daniel is going to get throttled, an old man – Mr. Miyagi – rescues him by fending off the bullies with ease.

Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing to train him for a karate tournament so he can face the Cobra Kai on equal terms. The way he prepares Daniel is by imparting to him the ancient wisdom of the karate tradition, starting with rudimentary skills (“wax on, wax off”) and building from that to instill discipline and technique. He demands long hours of hard work from Daniel, but (spoiler alert!) it pays off in the end! While the bullies are bigger and more brutal, they are no match for Daniel’s newfound skills.

It seems to me that Christians in western society find themselves in a similar situation to Daniel in The Karate Kid.

Continue reading

Racism, Atheism, and Tribal Morality

Last summer in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of the silverback gorilla Harambe, I asked my agnostic and atheist friends on Facebook if the Cincinnati Zoo was morally justified in shooting a gorilla to save a small child. It was a very interesting Facebook thread.

Most of those friends did believe that a human life is more valuable than a gorilla’s (though not all did – and I told those people not to take offense if I declined a dinner invitation to their house – I prefer to eat with people who see a clear difference between me and what is served for dinner!). But what was interesting to me was the justification these nonbelievers offered for privileging human life over animal life. For most of them, this was simply a matter of choosing the human “tribe” over the gorilla “tribe.” As one friend said:

The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.

This sentiment was shared by many participants on the thread. Another friend concluded: Continue reading

The Problem of Evil – Proof or Puzzle?

The most beautiful cancer patient I know

My wife has cancer.  We initially learned of her cancer just two days before our first anniversary. I am so proud of the way she has handled herself over the last four-and-a-half years as she has endured treatments, surgeries, and side effects. Our experience is not unique, of course. Today approximately 4,600 Americans will learn that they have cancer.

The reality of pain and suffering – whether caused by diseases like cancer, disasters like tsunamis, or inhumanities like murder – is a great challenge to faith. The psalmist Asaph says his faith faltered as he “saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2-3). In the midst of his anguish, Job complained about God’s seeming indifference: “It is all one; therefore I say, He destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (Job 9:22). And even the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1).

Philosophers refer to the difficulty in reconciling the existence of suffering with the existence of God as the problem of evil. To state the argument in its classical formulation, it goes like this:

  • Premise 1: Evil exists.
  • Premise 2: If God was all-powerful, He could prevent the existence of evil.
  • Premise 3: If God was all-good, He would prevent the existence of evil.
  • Conclusion: Therefore God does not exist.

What are we to make of this argument? Continue reading

Blind Faith or Reasoned Faith?

Does faith consist of belief  without any evidence? Lots of people think so – Christians and non-Christians. I have heard many Christians speak of faith and reason as polar opposites. And I have also heard many atheists and agnostics brush aside the concept of faith as mere superstition.

Further, there are certain Scriptures that seem to support the notion that belief is simply a “blind leap of faith,” a decision to commit to Christ without any kind of evidence. After all, didn’t Jesus say to doubting Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29)? And didn’t the apostle Paul declare that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)? And didn’t the writer of the Book of Hebrews define faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)? Continue reading