A friend of mine is a former Christian who said that part of the reason he stopped believing and is now an atheist is because of the existence of evil. He can’t accept that a good, all-powerful God would allow children to have bone cancer, the poor to die in obscurity, the innocent to suffer, etc.
I get it. In fact, I stopped believing in God when I was studying philosophy in college. I had been a fervent Christian, praying and studying the Bible for two hours a day, striving to conform my life to Christ. But reading the French existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre had a profound effect on me. In despair, I reluctantly concluded that God didn’t exist.
Over time, my faith began to return, inch by inch. For me, it was the realization that evil can’t exist if there is no God. Philosophically, I can understand the argument that there is no absolute right and wrong, and all we have is relative rights and wrongs. What’s right for one person is wrong for another. And there are so many examples of relative rights and wrongs.
But to say that everything is relative? Even the murder of a toddler? Or the murder of six million Jews? No, I can’t get there.
But my atheist friend would ask, if God can intervene to make the world right, why doesn’t He? It would cost Him nothing to fix things. Salvation was costly, because it required Him to send His Son to suffer the consequences that we sinners were due. But curing cancer, freeing the innocent, stopping earthquakes? These are easy things for an omnipotent deity.
I know this is supposed to pose a deep philosophical problem, but I don’t see it. As long as God wanted to make humans in His image, that apparently included making us free agents. And being free includes being free to rebel against God. If we can’t rebel, then we aren’t free.
And if we can choose wrong, then that means other people will suffer for our bad choices. God gives me freedom to disobey Him and be unkind to someone else – and that person suffers for my freedom. Therefore, to prevent my colleague from suffering would mean depriving me of my freedom to do wrong.
We can hate God for giving us this freedom, especially since God, being omniscient, knew in advance that we would misuse our freedom. But hating our Creator and Judge doesn’t make sense to me -- unless we deem Him to be bad. And if God is bad, we’re all in a world of hurt. We can hate him, but since He’s also omnipotent, that may not work out so well for us.
Let’s say we deny His existence, as my friend does. That’s logical. If we conclude that a good God wouldn’t give humans freedom to do wrong -- knowing that it would make other people suffer -- then a new problem arises: wrong can’t exist.
This may not seem sensible at first blush, but it’s a question of logic.
Suppose a child is murdered. That’s a horrible thing, and it happens all too often. For the atheist, what’s the basis for saying it’s wrong? What gives an atheist moral authority to declare what’s good and bad? The majority? If the majority is the standard for good and bad, then what’s good in one place and time isn’t bad in another place and time. We all know too many examples of majorities willing evil on minorities throughout human history, and I don’t think we’d be comfortable concluding that those majorities were doing good at the time. In fact, you may even think that there are ways in which American majorities today are wrong about some issue.
We have this sense that there is something absolute about really bad things. It’s not just a matter of one individual calling it bad – that’s just another way of saying we prefer some things more than others. We think that murdering a child is wrong, always and everywhere, notwithstanding that some majority thinks it’s okay.
This conundrum is why I can’t be an atheist anymore. For me, “the shadow proves the sunshine” (a Jon Foreman song by Switchfoot). I know the shadow (aka “evil”) exists, so there must be a sun (aka God) casting the shadow.
I encourage my friends who have left faith and become atheists to be consistent. When they use the words good, bad, right, wrong, and evil, they need to remember that all such categories belong to theists (and deists), but not atheists. They are borrowing language that makes no sense in their worldview.
I am not saying that atheists can’t be good. I have many wonderful, kind, loving atheist friends who are much better than many Christians. This isn’t about how people act, but what people can believe. Can you be an atheist and believe that good and bad exist? Only if you suspend logic. There is no other basis for good and bad apart from an absolute reference point. And if it’s not God, then I put the burden of proof on the atheist to show me what it is. I have yet to hear a remotely plausible explanation.
That’s why I’m no longer an atheist.