FIRST-PERSON: The problem of evil -- for atheists
ONTARIO, Calif. (BP) -- In his book "The Cross of Christ," John Stott said that the "the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith."
The ages-old problem of evil is the apparent conflict or contradiction between the existence of evil and suffering and the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present God who is also perfectly good.
As the problem goes such a God would stop evil and suffering, if He existed. Another form of the problem of evil focuses on the amount of evil, suggesting that while God may have good reason for some evil, surely the amount of evil we experience makes it unlikely that the God of Scripture exists.
Why is this argument such a challenge to the Christian faith? For many people, the argument is not about logical inconsistencies, probability or deductive logic. Rather, the problem of evil is about a sick child, an experience of abuse, personal exposure to horrific and traumatic evil or perhaps the hurtful actions of Christian leaders.
The problem of evil often boils down to our inability to reconcile our belief in a good and loving God with our experience of sin, suffering and evil.
There are smart people who have offered lengthy defenses of God against the problem of evil. Such a defense is called a theodicy, and you can check out the free will defense by C.S. Lewis or Alvin Plantinga or Gordon Clark's view of sovereign decree.
On a practical level, ministers can answer this question by turning the question back on the person who is raising the objection.
As Christians, we need to give an account of why evil exists. The good news is that the problem itself is understandable because we know who God is, we know what evil is and we know why it is a problem. An atheist, however, in raising the problem of evil must answer: If there is no God, why is evil, evil?
As Christians, we believe that evil is that which fails to reflect the beauty, goodness or will of God. As Augustine said, evil is "deprived of good".(1)
When an atheist points to the evil in the world as proof that God doesn't exist, he faces much bigger problems: If not for God, what constitutes evil?
A person who rejects God still lives in a world with suffering and evil, yet cannot explain why suffering and evil are bad. A person who rejects God lives in a world with suffering and evil, yet without any hope of future redemption and salvation, without any future reward for the righteous, punishment for the wicked and vindication for the abused.
Psalm 14:1 says, "The fool says in his heart, 'There's no God.'" One aspect of the foolishness of unbelief is that, apart from God, the evils of suffering, abuse, persecution and injustice fail to be evil.
If not for God, evil ceases to be evil. If not for a perfectly just Creator revealed in Christ, the very idea of injustice becomes meaningless. If there is no God and no Imago Dei, then moral outrage is reduced to collective emotionalism, social posturing or political maneuvering.
The problem of evil makes us realize just how much we need God.
(1) Augustine, Confessions, VII: [XII] 18.