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The problem of evil and hate

Published:Sunday | October 20, 2013 | 12:00 AM
A policeman walks past a child in the community of Tredegar Park, St Catherine, on August 13, 2010 after the gun killing of eight people there. Ian Boyne says the presence of evil in the world is central to many atheists' unbelief. - Norman Grindley/ChiefPhotographer

Ian Boyne, Contributor

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"  - Greek philosopher Epicurus

The number-one reason most thinking - and even non-thinking - atheists have rejected God is not because of science but because of the problem of evil.

The naïve view of some that Darwinian evolutionary theory has displaced God is mere wishful thinking. Darwinian naturalistic theories are challenged regularly, including by atheistic scientists themselves. And very able and highly credentialed Christian scientists have brought very compelling arguments against Darwinian naturalism.

I mention just one formidable Cambridge-educated Christian scientist and philosopher of science, Stephen Meyer, whose books Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (2010) and his recently released Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (2013) are enough to cogently argue against any notion that Darwinian evolutionary theory is unchallengeable.

And if you get into cosmology, you have even more reasons to question naturalism. One of the world's most prominent atheists of the 20th century, former Oxford philosophy Professor Anthony Flew, rejected atheism on the basis of scientific evidence against it, shocking the philosophical world in 2004.

Flew's 1950 paper delivered at Oxford University's Socratic Club titled 'Theology and Falsification' has been the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the 20th century. Flew turned his back on more than 50 years of active atheistic scholarship and advocacy on the basic of the weight of the scientific evidence suggesting an Uncaused Cause. The arguments for intelligent design, fine-tuning and the implications of Big Bang cosmology convinced Flew that atheism was untenable.

Atheism not scientific

Though he became a deist rather than a Christian, he saw enough scientific evidence to conclude that atheism had no philosophical or scientific warrant. I can understand the agnostic or deistic position, but dogmatic atheism I find entirely unappealing. And my main objective in this series of articles has been to show that there is no justification for arrogant atheism, and that trite atheists should quit the pretence that all the evidence is on their side and that Christians are fools, idiots or mad men and women.

I am delighted to have received emails and read blogs from atheists who, like me, despise arrogant atheism. I have found a balance and a nuanced response from some atheists, including on this Gleaner blog, surprisingly, that has been encouraging. Arrogant atheism is hostile to the true spirit of science and philosophy and is, ultimately, anti-intellectual. Epistemic humility is the only rational option for finite creatures. That's why I have always found agnosticism more appealing than atheism, though it is often too casually dismissed as a lazy man's refuge. I recommend Schellengberg's book The Wisdom to Doubt as an antidote to that lazy response to agnosticism.

But I maintain that theism is justified in light of all the evidence and that we do have warrant for belief in God. But I admit freely that the evidence is not coercive to everyone or rationally inescapable. And that itself poses a problem for Evangelical Christianity, which I believe has a lot to answer to.

In this my final piece in this series (let others have their say), I want to raise some troubling questions for Evangelical, conservative Christianity.

Think of this. Is it really a fact that there is no sincere, honest-hearted atheist who desperately, earnestly desired or desires to know God but who simply just can't find enough evidence to believe? Do you really believe that there is no inculpable non-belief, as the philosophers would put it?

Do you really believe that not one single atheist is a non-believer because he just can't find reasons to have faith? Some of you Christians will say in all sincerity and passion that every atheist is really a God-despiser, someone who loves sin and finds Christianity too morally demanding. I don't believe that.

In fact, I strongly believe that some of the doctrines of Evangelical, conservative Christianity would tend to reinforce atheism or agnosticism. I personally would find it hard to choose Evangelical Christianity over agnosticism, existentialism, deism or some unitive pluralist view. I explain.

I know there are atheists who are reinforced in their own atheism, for they know as a fact how hard they have tried to believe in God. How hard they wished they could believe. There is no doxastic voluntarism, as the philosophers would put it. You can't choose to work up or will yourself to believe in God. You either do or you don't.

And it's not everybody who doesn't believe in God who holds that position because he is a homosexual and doesn't want to change; is a womaniser; drunk; or some morally bankrupt person. And what about the many atheists who were devout, very passionate and observant Christians but who left Christianity over sincere, unresolved doubts? Will God send them to hell to burn forever because they sincerely could no longer believe?

Well-known atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell said that if he were to discover in the next life that God really exists and he got a chance to meet Him, he would simply tell him, "Sorry, not enough evidence." You can't just tell people to "have faith, trust God and His Word" without their coming to that conviction. They would have to be convicted by the Holy Spirit. God would have to directly open their minds. People can't come to belief on their own.

Ah, but Christians believe God is drawing every person, so everyone who doesn't come is at fault. I am saying there are atheists who know - not guess - that is not true, for they know their history. They know their hearts. They know their sincerity. They know they want to believe. They would love to have an afterlife. They would love to see their loved ones again. But they just can't find any solid reasons to believe. And especially when they think about the amount of evil that exists in the world.

Why would God allow evil?

Why would a good God allow such gratuitous evil? I don't have to enumerate the kinds of evils which take place daily. Ah, but it's man's free will, the Christian responds.Yet God interferes with human free will often, according to Evangelical teaching itself. In fact, every time you offer petitioner prayer, every time you ask for God to do things in the lives of others, you are asking him to interfere with people's free will.

When you pray for God to supernaturally change your son or daughter or change the prime minister's mind about doing a particular thing, you are asking God to suspend someone's free will and free inclination. So if He can do that to answer your prayer, why can't He even sometimes intervene to stop some murderers, rapists and terrorists from killing some babies, old ladies and crippled people?

Christians need to refine their answers to the problem of evil. I don't believe that there is no answer to the problem of evil, but some standard Evangelical ones are woefully inadequate. The sceptical theists have come up with some interesting answers. (Sceptical theism is the position which emphasises the gap between God's knowledge and ours and the fact that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evils that we don't know about simply because of our limitations.)

But think of this: Calvinism is a major theological system in orthodox Christianity. Many Evangelical Christians are Calvinists who believe humans can't really exercise free will, for God's sovereignty cancels that out. If God has really predestined some people to be lost and others to be saved, as Calvinism asserts; if people are saved purely by God's grace and what God does, as classical Protestantism affirms, what's the point of free will?

If sin results in the "bondage of the will", as Luther and other theologians assert, how can the free will defence stand as an explanation for the horrendous evils in the world?

And according to Evangelical theology, most people (the 'broad road leading to destruction') will be lost. God had a free choice as to whether He would create or not. Creation was not a logical necessity for Him. Why did He go ahead and do it if He has foreknowledge and knew it would end up so wasteful? Just so that a few would be saved to glorify Him while the masses writhe in pain and misery?

And think about the billions of people who live in countries where Christianity is either banned, suppressed or unknown. Evangelical theologians themselves say billions of people are still unreached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Bible asserts that Jesus is the only means of salvation. So where is the justice for all those multiple millions of devout Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims who, through no fault of their own, were born in countries where they were taught those religions?

Chances are that if you devout, passionate Christians who are fuming at me now were born in India, China, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, you would be less likely to be praising Jesus Christ - through no fault of your own. And it was colonialism which made us know about Christ rather than our African traditional religions and Islam! If Jesus is the only way to God, as Evangelical Christianity proclaims, and the Bible seems to confirm, why have so many never heard of this One Way? And, remember, Evangelicals say there is no chance in the next life to get it right. This is the only time of salvation.

And an ever-burning hell awaits people who don't believe - because they were born in the wrong place and just did not have enough evidence to convict them? Would a loving and just God burn people forever and ever because they could not believe or, worse, because they did not know about Jesus? You see why a doctrine like this could create or reinforce atheism! A world with so many evils and after that an eternal life in hell? That's tailor-made to create atheists!

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and