A Problem for Atheists

Atheists and agnostics often cite the existence of evil in the universe as a real problem for anyone who believes in a traditional notion of God. And the argument is not without force. At some point, nearly everyone—believer and skeptic alike—wrestles with the difficulty of an all-good, all-powerful God presiding over a world in which evil is so prevalent. Why would such a God allow evil to exist, and so much of it at that?

That being said, it’s worth pointing out a problem that arises when someone accuses God of injustice on account of evil. Here’s what C. S. Lewis had to say about his own thought process on the matter before he became a Christian:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. (Mere Christianity)

Lewis understood that for ideas of cruelty and injustice to have any real meaning or force, they had to represent more than just his personal evaluations. They had to reflect something larger than himself, a real moral reality. But without God, the universe has no such reality. It’s merely the combination of matter and energy, time and chance. To remove God—the only real source for a genuine, transcendent morality—is to remove any legitimate grounds for making a moral case against him. A godless universe isn’t cruel or unjust. It just is.

But the problem doesn’t end with the question of morality. What about beauty? In a world without God, being struck silent by the warm splendor of a sunset must be reduced merely to a number of physical processes involving light waves, chemical reactions, electrical impulses, etc. And if things had played out a bit differently, perhaps humanity could have just as easily developed a similar physical response to piles of garbage.

Similarly, our human experience of love in such a world doesn’t involve any profound meaning or value. In fact it isn’t substantially different from a stream slowly rounding jagged bits of rock into smooth pebbles. Both are the results of certain interactions of matter and energy, nothing more.

Nor can we really hold to what we might otherwise call truth. In a debate with atheist Farrell Till, Douglas Wilson explained it this way:

If there is no God, then all that exists is time and chance acting on matter. If this is true then the difference between your thoughts and mine correspond to the difference between shaking up a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bottle of Dr. Pepper.

Wilson’s point is that we don’t hold our beliefs because they’re true in any objective sense. Rather:

They are all empty sensations created by the chemical reactions of the brain, in turn created by too much pizza the night before. If there is no God, then all abstractions are chemical epiphenomena, like swamp gas over fetid water. This means that we have no reason for assigning truth and falsity to the chemical fizz we call reasoning.

None of this is meant to suggest that physical process aren’t involved or important in our experiences of the things just mentioned. It is to say, however, given a godless universe, they’re the only things involved. And if that’s the case, we need to ask whether much of the way we view our lives is nothing more than an illusion.

On the other hand, if God exists, things are much different. He provides the source and definition of everything just mentioned: morality, beauty, love, truth. And we may (genuinely) experience these things because he has created us in his image to do so. 

Much more can and should be said about all of this. But I hope the above at least suggests that Christians aren’t the only ones who must wrestle with difficult questions.

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