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“Ask a Priest: What Is an Atheist to Think in the Face of Evil?”
Q: I have to say up front that I’m an atheist. I’ve tried having conversations about faith with quite a few Christians who got very emotional and angry with me, and I don’t want that. So I ask that you bear with me, and keep in mind that I’m approaching you respectfully and in good faith, so to speak. I was raised Protestant, but as I grew older I began to have troubling questions about the nature of God and existence. There were things I read in the Bible and heard in church that struck as wrong, things God did and said that seemed evil. I began to have a crisis of faith. I tried reading, asking friends and pastors, and nobody could give me truly satisfying answers. Eventually, while thinking about the problem of evil, I realized that I couldn’t justify my faith anymore, and came to the conclusion that I don’t believe in God. Over the years I’ve continued to think about these questions, and I think that the one thing I can’t justify, the one fatal question, is still the problem of evil. I’ve never come up with or read a satisfying resolution to the issue, and frankly it’s really starting to bother me. So, Father, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the problem of evil, and have an open discussion about it. Thanks so much for your time and forbearance. – D.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: My guess is that you aren’t quite the atheist you call yourself. It sounds as though deep down your problem isn’t about believing in God’s existence. It is about how to reconcile the presence of evil in the world with an all-good, omnipotent God.
The good news is that you have lots of company. Explaining the presence of evil is probably one of the most difficult questions ever raised. This question, in fact, inspired the Book of Job, one of the most profound works in the Old Testament.
Before I return to the question of evil, let me back up a moment and address your point about the Bible.
The Old Testament, as you have learned, can be extremely unsettling. There is a lot of brutal material in it, at least to our 21st-century sensibilities.
A few ideas are worth keeping in mind.
First, the Bible isn’t a simple manual for moral behavior. It is a complex set of works written over many centuries that sketches the drama of the history of salvation. The Old Testament, in particular, is a “dialogue,” as one scholar has described it here in The Consuming Fire.
God revealed himself slowly to the world. The height of his revelation was Jesus Christ, his Son. Hence, the way to interpret the Bible is through the light of Christ. Everything before him was a preparation for the coming of Christ.
Sometimes God spoke to the ancients of the Old Testament in ways that they could understand, but which wouldn’t go over well today with us. But that’s because we have the advantage of knowing about Christ. This includes you, too, for you probably look at the world through a Christian lens. You recognize (from what I gather) that violence is not good. This is a kind of Christian thinking embedded in the world, thanks to the coming of Christ and his Church.
God was dealing with rough people in the Old Testament, and so some of the “dialogue” between him and the people seems rough. It’s like a parent who sends a 4-year-old to his room for not eating his vegetables. That same parent wouldn’t do that with a 20-year-old. Is that because the parent has changed? No, it’s because the child has grown, and thus the parent interacts with the adult offspring differently from the 4-year-old. That is sort of the way to view the Old Testament at times. Then, too, some of the dictums about putting enemies to the sword might have been interpretations by the prophets or other figures, not necessarily directives from God himself.
Now, back to the question of evil.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. But a few points might help.
First, God’s original plan for the world did not include evil. Indeed, “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31).
What ushered evil and suffering into the world was the sin of the first humans. This is a very profound mystery in itself. We all inherit a fallen human nature from Adam which makes us prone to sin. This might sound bizarre, except that it makes perfect sense when we look around and see all the evil deeds that people do.
God allows these evil deeds because he respects the freedom he gave us. He doesn’t want us to be robots. He wants us to love him freely. If we misuse our freedom and do bad things that cause ourselves and others harm, God tends to let us feel the consequences of that.
He allows this evil to happen because he can bring something good out of it. Some of the worst sinners turned out to be great saints, after their conversion and their experience of God’s mercy. St. Augustine, for instance, was no Boy Scout. And St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was a man of the world but not in an exemplary way. Yet God used their experience of sin to help turn them into great saints.
Most importantly, God sent his Son to suffer and die for us on a cross. By taking up the cross, Jesus gave meaning to suffering because he gave it redemptive power. Jesus’ obedience to his Father and his suffering on a cross is what paid the price for our sins and gave us a chance at salvation. Jesus overcame evil with love, though he didn’t eliminate evil from the world.
There is still a lot of mystery in all this. Which is why after 2,000 years the Gospel and Scripture in general is still mysterious. By entering into this mystery we can draw closer to God and learn about his goodness.
It takes faith, no doubt, but it is not arbitrary. There is something profound about the holiness of God and the nastiness of sin. The battle between the two is something we all face within ourselves.
For more perspective, you might find two works of Peter Kreeft helpful. One is his audio course “Faith and Reason“. Your local library system might have a copy.
I hope some of this helps. I wish you well on your journey as you seek the truth.
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