I’ve had my share of discussions with people who identify as atheists. I respect them, for the most part. There have been a few whose anger damaged both the rationality of their argument and the mutual respect that would have made our discussion profitable. But anger and flawed reasoning are hardly unique to atheists.
Most people I’ve met who identify as atheists do so not because reason has compelled them but because experience has led them to believe the God presented in the Bible is unlikely to exist. That experience is generally characterized by two realities that are impossible to ignore: first, the overwhelming present-ness of physical things, coupled with the underwhelming present-ness of spiritual things; and, second, the undeniable presence of evil, expressed as suffering.
The first of these two realities raises the question: Why is God, if he exists, not more obvious? I’ve heard the question put like this: If God requires people to believe in him in order to go to heaven, why doesn’t he help them believe by giving them a sign? Why doesn’t he write across the sky, in neon colors, “I am here?” A God who demands people believe in him or be destroyed, yet offers them no help to believe, must be evil and malicious.
The second issue, the presence of evil, raises a closely related question: If God exists and is the all-powerful and all-good being Christians claim he is, why doesn’t he do something about suffering? Why do babies die and children starve? Why do the strong abuse the weak and get away with it? Why do earthquakes demolish churches filled with worshipers? A good God wouldn’t allow people to suffer like this, so there must not be a God or, if there is, he must not be good.
It should be noted that people who reason like this are not starting from a neutral position between belief and unbelief. They haven’t “passed go” but they’re still trying to collect their $200. They have ignored the principal arguments for the existence of a creator (for example, Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” argument, refined by Aquinas and others) and are arguing against the existence of God on secondary grounds.
It should be admitted, though, that those secondary grounds are very real and troubling. But it is not just atheists who find them so; believers do too. It might surprise some atheists to learn that these troubling questions were asked by believers long before they made their way into the atheist’s playbook. They are, in fact, ensconced in the pages of the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
The biblical Job, for example, agonizes over his suffering and is angry that God has not done something to stop it. The biblical psalmists repeatedly and bitterly ask God why he hasn’t shown up on the scene. In a poem of overwhelming pathos - a messianic psalm, at that - the author cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” Jesus quoted these words from the cross.
These questions turn some people into atheists, but the thinkers mentioned above prove it is possible to grapple with them from within a framework of faith. The atheists are right to ask them, but they ought to know that the same questions have been asked for thousands of years and answers other than “God does not exist” have been found.
Approach these questions with the assumption that God does not exist, and there are simply no answers. But approach them from the perspective that God not only exists but that he has good purposes in mind for his creation and intends to develop humanity into a race of glorious, free, wise, and loving beings, then answers become available.
If this summary of God’s purpose is accurate, the next question is: “Given this, what are we to make of the hiddenness of God and the conspicuousness of evil?” And the answer - a biblical one, at that - is: God makes his hiddenness and even human suffering to serve his objective of developing a society of all-embracing love and goodness in which he and humans live together in joyful community.
That is what God has been up to.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.