Monday, June 25, 2012

Atheism and the Problem of Pain

One angry atheist responded to me:

  • So he [God] makes people suffer so we will ask for his help. Seems demented. Like an abusive relationship, so he disciplines people with disease, poverty, hunger, murder, rape, genocide, and natural disasters? Why follow such a sadistic?
The atheist – I’ll call him “Rob” – is making a charge that many atheists make:

  • If God is entirely good and all-powerful, we shouldn’t experience any pain or at least pain that seems to be unreasonable.
When I sense that there is no openness to discussion – no give and take – I might graciously extricate myself from the discussion. However, if this charge is made in a public forum, walking away might suggest that Christianity has no answer – an impression I would not want to give.

Therefore, if the atheist is militant, I will put the burden of proof back on him:

  • What evidence do you have that if God allows suffering, it is “unreasonable?”
There is no evidence! Therefore, the atheist will usually resort to an emotional appeal:

  • Well, everyone knows that genocide is evil, and that it can serve no possible good.
Here again, the atheist is unable to bring a rational charge against God. He may appeal to what is “evil” or “good,” and then claim that the God of the Bible has violated these standards. However, he has no basis for his charge. The atheist is a moral relativist and a materialist. He believes that there is nothing out there apart from matter and energy. Therefore, there is no moral “truth” apart from what we personally decide upon or create for ourselves; it’s all personal (subjective), changing (evolving), and culture-specific (non-universal).

Consequently, without moral absolutes, there is no means to judge another culture, let alone another Being – the Creator of all things. Therefore, when the atheist judges God (and the Biblical conception of God), he is acting hypocritically. He knows that he has no objective measure or standard, but he’s judging as if he has one.

It’s like a math teacher grading a math exam, while she knows that there are no right or wrong answers.

At this point, don’t be surprised if your atheist becomes frustrated and starts to attack you. If instead, he is somewhat receptive to your response, you can then begin to share lessons from your own life.

For example, I’ve learned that I need hardships and humbling circumstances to teach me God’s Word and to trust only in Him. The Bible affirms this truth in many ways. Paul confessed that he had despaired of himself, but this happened for an all-surpassing reason:

  • We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8-9)
This principle even works itself out interpersonally. I am sad to confess that when I am broken and hurting, I tend to value my wife far more than I would without my humbling circumstances. I have also learned how to be more compassionate and patient with others through my own failures.

However, I must add that if my life had been about failures alone, I suspect that instead of compassion, I would have learned bitterness and jealousy. However, in seeing the compassion that God has for me through the ever-greater awareness of my own unworthiness, I am encouraged to extend this compassion to others.

Consequently, even though I have suffered tremendously, I can now look back and say along with David, King of Israel:

  • It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (Psalm 119:71)
I would even take this analysis a step further and argue that we even need death! How jaded we become to our relationships. Often it is prospect of death that revives us from our slumber – our distorted priorities.

We’ve all seen footage of victims pulled alive out of the wreckage amidst tears of gratefulness. Their love and thankfulness were palpable. How hardened are we that we don’t respond to our loved ones in this manner without impending disasters!

I think that we are quick to denigrate God because we fail to see that depth of our spiritual illness. If we know that we have a life-threatening cancer, we willingly submit to the surgeon’s knife to remove the threat. We even financially reward the surgeon for cutting us in pieces.

Our Savior is our spiritual surgeon. However, only those who know Him will perceive this:

  • The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:9-10)
Those on the outside will see only the blood and gore. It is like an uneducated Eskimo beholding a cancer surgery for the first time. He will be repelled by the pain and invasiveness of the surgery. He might even think that the patient who had submitted to such treatment had to be crazy or masochistic.

He is like a color-blind person who insists that there is no difference between red, green and blue. However, this analysis is far too gracious regarding the depth of human sin and hatred. The color blind man didn’t choose to be color-blind. However, those of us who have rejected God have made this choice:

  • They are darkened in their understanding [and this is the way we all were] and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. (Ephes. 4:18-19)
Can we truthfully say that this isn’t a good description of how we had all been? And if this is our true state, then perhaps we might begin to recognize our need for radical surgery?





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