Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

An Honest Atheist Grapples with the Problem of Evil

02/10/2013 Comments (75)

He writes:

I read the article on your website titled "Padding the Case for New Atheism" and i was just wondering if you would be kind enough to answer a question i have in regards to the existence of god or gods. However before I begin I would just like to say that although at this moment i would probably define my self as agnostic, I completely share your contempt towards the "new age atheist movement" and find many of the main proponents of the movement equally as obnoxious and irrational as the fundamentalists they criticize. With that said, I will now move on to my question. I suppose before I go any further, it would be wise to define my conception of god as to not make things any more confusing and complicated than a topic like this already is, so I suppose for the purpose of this question I will define god in the traditional Christian definition.


My biggest problem with this god or any conscious god for that matter is why "it" would create me in the first place. Assuming this god possesses all the qualities attributed to him by Christian theologians, it seems unnecessary and even ridiculous for god to create a universe, and better yet, a universe that is full of suffering and unnecessary pain. As someone who seems to be a strong believer in the Christian conception of god, how do you rationalize and accept the idea of a god that is supposedly infinitely perfect in all ways putting you on a planet with unimaginable amounts of suffering?

Howdy.  Thanks for your question.  Just to be clear, it’s the “New Atheist” movement, not the “New Age Atheist” movement.  The New Age and the New Atheism are, in many ways, polar opposites, since the former tends to represent a sort of unthinking credulity toward all spiritual claims (except those of the Christian faith) while the New Atheism represents an equally unthinking skepticism to all spiritual claims (especially those of the Christian faith).

I’m not sure what you mean by God “in the traditional Christian definition”.  That’s not to say there is no traditional Christian definition.  It’s to say I don’t know what you mean by that.  Very often, when I press people about what they mean by the “traditional Christian definition of God” they mean something much more like a Muslim, pagan Greek, or even comic book definition:  a grouchy hairy thunderer who sits on a cloud and judges people, or a random miracle worker who inexplicably does random things for no reason, or (as you suggest below), a heartless cosmic Lab Worker who creates the universe, heedless of the suffering it will involve for all the rats in the lab, apparently just to see what happens.

Perhaps the first place to start is with the notion that God is an “it”.  A Being competing for space alongside a huge inventory of other beings, all likewise jostling for existence.  In that conception of God it’s more or less Us vs. Him.  The more space he takes up, so to speak, the less for us; the more freedom he has, the more we lose.  But God is not “a being”—the biggest, most powerful of all beings, who capriciously get to call the shots because he won the cosmic lottery and got to be Almighty while the rest of us have to just knuckle under to him.  Rather, God *is* Being.  All us creatures, insofar as we exist at all, participate in Being because Being wills us to be.  And he will us to be, not because he needs something, but because he overflows with being and loves creation into existence.  This puts objections like yours in a pickle because they depend, at the end of the day, on some conception of love for Being even as you attempt to assert that Being is bad.  Your objection boils down to claiming that “It would be better” for creatures not to exist.  But “better” implies some positive good, some enhancement of being that you desire for creatures, such as “no suffering”.  In short, you wind up appealing to some conception of the fullness of Being (i.e. God) in order to try to tell God that giving the world being was a bad idea.  That’s a non-starter.

As to why God creates when he knows that a consequence of creation will be sin and evil (what Augustine called the mystery of creatures “asserting their nothingness”), St. Thomas puts it this way:

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): "Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil." This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

In short, God permits evil—both the sins of angels and of human beings—because he wills not merely simple goodness (i.e., a trouble free world) but complex goodness (i.e., a world in which we get to actively participate in the endless ecstasy of his Trinitarian life).  A world of contented oysters is not happy enough because oysters--free of trouble and contentedly ingesting organic materal until they just quietly fade back into the sea and become organic material for something else to ingest--are experiencing only a low-level kind of goodness.  But they are not capable of participation in the divine life as rational beings.  We are.  But to be that kind of being is also, of necessity, to be the sort of creature capable of sin and evil if we abuse our free will.  God (who is the only one capable of seeing all ends) has deemed it worth the risk to give such freedom to us, so that we might share in his ecstatic joy forever.  As Paul puts it: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).  In this, he follows the lead of God himself, who faced and bore the worst evils himself in the person of Jesus Christ.  That’s what the letter to the Hebrews means when it says that Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross.

In the end, it is perfectly true to say that the universe is “unnecessary” (and therefore pain, like all created things, is unnecessary). God didn’t make the world because he needed it.  He made it—and you—because he is Love and Love is reckless and lavish and doesn’t count the cost when it sets its sights on the beloved.  God made you, not because he needs you but because it is his good pleasure to do so.  He made a world—a world that he knew perfectly well would subject him to horsewhipping and crucifixion—because his good pleasure is to be with us and we with him despite all that.  He’s already been through hell himself and risen from the dead to turn even evil into the means of giving you that love and making you a participant in it.  Looking for “reasons” for that beyond the love of God is an exercise in futility.  In God, love, truth, reason and the good are one.  Trying to argue against his will to love creation into existence by appealing to something “better” keeps leading you right back to God himself, from whom all your ideas of “good” originate—including the good of peace and respite from suffering.

Hope that helps.

Filed under maibag

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
  • Get the RSS feed
Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.