Archive | New Atheism

Spending an Evening with Atheists

A number of years ago I received an email from Justin Bosch who was sponsoring a screening of the film, The God Who Wasn’t There at the historic Oriental Theater in Northwest Denver. Mr. Bosch screens films related to media reform and social ethics, but on this occasion, he was venturing into the religious deep. Since the film is very critical of Christianity—claiming that Jesus never existed and that Christians are dangerous simpletons—he wanted to give some response time to a Christian as well as to an atheist. So, at the last minute it was arranged that Will Providence, a local atheist of the Objectivist stripe (a follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy), and I would make some brief comments after the film and then answer questions.

The God Who Wasn't There Movie Art

Although I seldom participate in highly-charged public forums with little notice, I was interested in doing this because, without me. there would have been no Christian response. Further, I was familiar with the basic arguments of the film and was able to mine quite a bit of material on it and the producer online prior to the event.

The event nearly filled the theater. The first half hour or so was taken up by an audio presentation of a comedian who recounted her loss of Catholic faith and her turn to atheism. It was the most uncharitable presentation of the teaching of the Bible I had ever heard in one sitting. The Old Testament is nothing more than a moral mess. Jesus isn’t as nice as she thought. After all, he was impatient with his disciples, and so on. The Catholic priest who taught her the Bible was a fideist who said she had to have faith and that he would pray she had faith. That was not good enough, and eventually, “God disappeared” for this poor soul.

A 62-Minute Affront to Honesty in Documentaries

The best thing about The God Who Wasn’t There is that it was mercifully short: sixty-two minutes. The film advances the solidly refuted claim that Christianity was started by Paul who invented a Jesus out of whole cloth—the cloth of mystery religions. There are so many inaccuracies that I don’t know where to begin, so I won’t. However, Mike Licona has written a long and thorough piece on the movie. Christians were presented as rapture-bedazzled nincompoops who wanted to take over America and persecute as many infidels as possible.

A Christian and Atheist Respond

After this torment was over, Will and I took the stage before about 125 people. I made an opening statement that focused on the films three basic arguments (if I can so dignify such propaganda):

  1. The claim that mystery religions influenced our understanding of Jesus
  2. The claim that Christianity leads to persecution
  3. The claim that Christianity is intrinsically irrational

Will spoke for just a few minutes on what atheism meant to him. It wasn’t much of an argument for a debate, however. He did not address the film at all. We then took questions from the audience for about 45 minutes. Most of the questions were aimed at me.

The audience was largely made up atheists, it seemed, although a few Christian friends attended. I infer this because when Will or a questioner made a point against Christianity or God, people tended to applaud.

I would sometimes interact directly with Will—a young and presentable Iranian man in law school—but he didn’t have much of substance to say except that he based his philosophy on reason and not faith. He also made positive allusions to Saint Ayn Rand.

The questions—or sometimes just accusations against Christianity—related to issues such as the concept of truth, the supposed sexism of the Bible, hell, and so on. They really started piling on about hell at the end. In some cases, people would yell things from the audience instead of going to the microphone. When I presented an egalitarian account of gender relations (with ample reference to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s books), someone yelled, “Read Paul!” I have, amazingly enough, and he was no sexist.

Presenting Christianity with Confidence

This was easily the most hostile group (of Atheists) I have ever addressed in thirty-six years of public speaking.

This was easily the most hostile group I have ever addressed in thirty-six years of public speaking. I spoke after an hour and half of anti-Christian propaganda and was on stage with an atheist before an audience of many atheists. Nevertheless, I think my opening comments refuted important claims in the film—I needed several hours to respond to all the errors, many of which were absolute howlers—and I attempted to fairly and calmly respond to all the questioners. I was not stumped by any of the questions or comments, but I always wanted to say more; I am a professor, after all. I tried to give Will ample time to respond, but he often wanted to move on to the next questioner. He seemed quite nervous. At several points, I was able to present the essential gospel message, once in response to a question on hell: Jesus came to save us from that fate.

I hope that people who attended this event will post comments. You are better judges of me than I am, and you may be able to add your own observations of the event as a whole.

Nevertheless, I offer a few reflections. I solicited widespread prayer for this, which is my custom (and was the apostle Paul’s custom as well). This makes a tremendous difference. Despite the antagonistic crowd, I did not feel threatened or panicked. Several questioners wanted to back me into a fideist corner, but I never said that Christianity was without reason or evidence. I provided arguments and no subjective testimony or “I just know that I know in my knower.” The caricature was applied because most Christians do not give reasons for their faith, even though they are commanded to do so in the Bible (1 Peter 3:15). A philosopher defending Christianity as rational probably blew some of their materialist circuits.

It was heartening to talk with several people afterward who seemed to be genuinely interested in Christianity. One of the co-owners of the theater was very enthusiastic about having me there and complimented me on my ability to respond reasonably to questions. He had probably never seen such a thing before. I hope to follow up with him. I also received an email from a man who is an agnostic who would like to interact with me.

A Call for Thoughtful Christian Engagement

My final blast is this (although I’ve said it a thousand times): We need more thoughtful and well-informed Christians in the marketplace of ideas, even in the hot spots. As Os Guinness has stated, most of American Christian evangelism is aimed at those who are already very interested in Christianity but don’t know how to become Christians. This leaves out a vast number of souls who are hostile to Christianity or have no interest in it at all. We are called by Jesus Christ to engage these people as well.

Many attending that night had never heard a thoughtful defense of Christianity. This is both sad and wrong. Christians should know what they believe and why they believe it. As they grow in their confidence that Christianity is amply supported by reason and evidence, they should likewise grow in their courage for the Christian witness. The stakes are too high to be ignorant or cowardly.



Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Constructive Curmudgeon blog in March of 2006. Permission to reprint with a number of alternations has been provided by the author, Dr. Groothuis.

5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist

Modern atheism is suffering a great deal. This is due to the growth of a new, evangelical type of atheism. Many have labeled its adherents the “New Atheists”. They’re new only in the sense of mission, drive, purpose, and appeal. There’s nothing new in their arguments. Nothing has been discovered that should increase their enthusiasm.

5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist

Nevertheless, here they are. And despite my claim that they’re suffering, their impact is far-reaching. Their appearance on the cultural center stage is truly affecting people’s beliefs: confirming some in their atheism and causing many theists to tremble.

In spite of this, I believe that this movement is in desperate need of help. While they’re having an effect, its intellectual weaknesses will cut it short.

The New Atheists – A Movement In Need of Help

The New Atheists are filled with emotional rage, relying on their personalities for inspiration. I have some advice to help shape them during this volatile time in their history. Ironically, I truly want them to listen and improve. Why? Because I want every worldview to have good representation. It does me no good in my pursuit of truth to have my worldview challenged by an impotent and weakly opponent. Modern atheism can improve in five key areas which I’ll lay out in detail below.

1. Make More Concessions.

After listening to and reading many of the most popular atheists today, I’ve found that (generally speaking) there’s an incredible lack of intellectual honesty. These volumes are filled with claims that smack of propaganda:

  • Christianity has no evidence.
  • Theism is completely irrational.
  • People believe in God because they are uneducated.
  • To be a Christian is to commit intellectual suicide.

I wish this was the exception and that most public atheists didn’t speak in such a way, but it’s not, and, they do.

Don’t get me wrong… I understand the atheist who says that the case for theism is not compelling enough or, for them, does not make a sufficient case. But to say that there is no evidence for God or that Christianity requires a lack of education is not only an incredible overstatement it’s intellectually uninformed at best and dishonest at worst.

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The Intolerance of Tolerance

toleranceIn Ecclesiastes 12:12 we read, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” The more I am around the publishing world I realize the truthfulness of these words.

I read a lot. Just last night my wife, who fully supports my reading disease, asked me to put the book down and walk away. It’s my fantasy to have many uninterrupted hours of reading. Yes, it’s a disease.

Even if you have the reading disease worse than me, it is still impossible to read every worthwhile book. Just devoting yourself to reading the works of: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Owen, Barth, Machen, Solzhenitsyn, Lewis, Chesterton, Kierkegaard, MacDonald and Bunyan would take many years. If you read the works of all those dead people you would only see the tip of the iceberg of all the dead people you should read.

While you may be devoting your time to be “well read” among the gigantic list of dead people there is, in addition, at least one book coming out every week that you really should read. I occasionally have a desire to give up. Throw my arms up in the air and simply transfer all my hard fought reading time over to Netflix. To stop reading and start binging on endless seasons of Netflix offerings. My disease, however, prevents me from giving up. I find I’m a better father, husband, friend and leader when I keep my nose consistently in good books.

Harry S. Truman is known for saying, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Why all this focus on reading? Well, in an age of non-stop book releases it is more challenging than ever to know what books to read. You can devote 8 hours a day to reading worthless books and you will never run out.

This post could become a post about how to know what to read, perhaps that post will come one day. For the time being, however, I want to direct your attention to just one book. If you didn’t notice D.A. Carson’s book The Intolerance of Tolerance when it first came out a couple years ago I want to bring it to your attention.

I think the book is a pivotal work to make sure you are aware of the massive shift that has happened in Western culture around the topic of tolerance. Here’s just one paragraph to give you a taste:

This shift from “accepting the existence of different views” to “acceptance of different views,” from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, is subtle in form, but massive in substance. To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own.

That paragraph should take your breath away. We have experienced a massive cultural shift. As Ambassador’s of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) it is important for us to understand our culture so we can best communicate Jesus to our culture. Paul knew the currents of Athenian thought in order to share Jesus to the elites on Mars Hill.

Reading at least the first half of Carson’s book is, in my 2-cent opinion, worth the time, effort and money.

Why “I believe in logic and reason” is a Nonsense Statement

I’m exposed more than the average citizen to regular discussions and debates of ‘off limits’ subjects like religion, partly by circumstance and partly by choice, which is to say partly because I’m in classrooms every week where these topics are on the agenda and partly because I go out of my way to observe or listen when they are hashed out in larger public forums.

You are likely to hear something today that people in generations gone by would have thought strange, which is the following: In the context of disagreement about religious beliefs (like what a person believes about God, the afterlife, etc.), someone who doesn’t believe in any such things will announce his or her belief in “logic” and “reason.” This declaration of allegiance to logic and reason is typically offered with boastful superiority, as if to say, “Well as for the rest of you, you can believe this or that, but as for me, I believe in logic and reason.” The implication that is given by this simplistic credal statement is that belief in logic/reason is unique to the person making the confession of belief in it, as though it is the exclusive alternative to the other people’s beliefs. They believe x-y-z, but I believe in reason.

What Think Ye of Reason? Whose Son is He?

Nobody likes an ugly custody battle, but in the recent era of boisterous “in your face” internet debate styles, we’ve seen an attempt to co-opt the favored terms and claim them as the natural and exclusive property of the self-appointed champions of reason and logic. When you see any particular individual or group lay claim to “reason”, you should get suspicious. Anti-religious atheist groups are the most glaring culprits when it comes to this. They love to name their groups things like “The United Coalition of Reason” and grab media attention by naming their events things like “The Reason Rally.”

Not that this is entirely without precedent. In the early 1790s some radical Enlightenment-loving French revolutionaries dismantled the altars of Paris churches as a display of their contempt for the Roman Catholic clergy of their time, erecting new displays to the symbolic goddess “Reason.” Their cause was more political and social (and in their context, more dire). Today’s cavalier use of “reason” is more of a self-serving PR strategy. By claiming “reason” as my own, I imply it is on my side only and that those opposed to me are clearly unreasonable. This is why Al Gore decided that his 2008 book lashing out at Bush & all of this political opponents should be entitled The Assault on Reason. As strategies go, it’s completely self-congratulatory but probably as effective, at least, as other similar political statements we’ve often heard, such as “The difference between me and my opponent is that I am interested in the truth.

Unfortunately most of the matra-like repetition of the words logic and reason amounts to posturing and nothing else. Few people care to understand just what we are talking about when we employ these words, which in common use are mostly synonymous.  The late Dallas Willard once wrote that “Reason is a voice that all of us hear.”  Reason is nobody’s child. Nobody has sole custody. Nobody has the market cornered. Logic is inescapably embedded in all of our thinking and discourse. Everyone who has thought about it very long has realized this. Aristotle was one of the earliest to elucidate it clearly in writing. All human thinking and discourse, if it is coherent in the least bit, is employing and relying upon basic logic. The only way for any person or group to jettison reason entirely (and remain consistent in doing so) would be for that group or person to utter words totally at random or remain completely silent. For that matter he (or they) would not be able even to think in propositions without making use of reason.

This is not to say that human beings are rational in all of our deliberations and decisions. We are influenced by and subject to all sorts of other influences too. And not that even the smartest people among us don’t occasionally violate the canons of reason. We’re no more intellectually perfect than we are morally perfect. Christian theologians have long alluded to what they call the “noetic” effects of our fallen nature, meaning our imperfections and limitations are not only in the ethical domain. Our minds are flawed enough all the way around to cause us to be foolishly illogical in specific ways on certain occasions.

But these limitations apply to everyone across the board. Nobody is immune. The thought processes of the most devout believers are the same basic combinations of factors as those of the least religious. For everyone the mental life consists of a regular mixture of common sense, ignorance, insight, oversight, at times pristine logical thinking, at other times glaring errors or blind spots, biases, confusion, emotionalism, etc. Where disagreement exists between two points of view, the wrong approach is simply to hail everyone who agrees with you as reasonable and brand everyone who doesn’t as illogical. When you apply the words “illogical” and “unreasonable” to people it is generally in order to insult them . Apply the terms instead – and appropriately – to the arguments themselves if you can demonstrate why they apply.

A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

When you hear the casual tossing around of the words “logic” and “reason” in this usual contemporary way (i.e., claiming them for my side) you should ask some basic questions of the person using them. What does he or she take those words to mean? What is their definition? Are they the same thing? Different?  If the person is claiming that someone’s view or position is “illogical”, can he or she point to exactly where logic is being violated? Most people who speak this way don’t realize that something is not “illogical” simply because it is strange, outlandish, hard to believe, or even empirically false.

Another question I ask is, does the person (claiming to believe in “logic and reason”) suppose that the most reasonable and logically astute thinkers of history agreed with him/her? Alexander Pope’s immortal poetic line that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” tends to apply here. Pope’s advice was to “drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” In a similar vein, and more to the point regarding basic religious belief, the great Francis Bacon wrote, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion” (Of Atheism). This is why C. S. Lewis had his fictional senior demon Screwtape advise the novice demon Wormwood to keep it shallow and superficial when trying to mess with his victim’s head. “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church,” writes Screwtape, who adds a few lines later, “By the very act of arguing you awake the patient’s reason, and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?” (The Screwtape Letters).

The culture of the internet with its dizzying array of endless media is vastly different from the one Pope and Bacon knew, yet it demonstrates their principle well. So many people today know just enough to be “dangerous.” They suppose themselves to be so eminently reasonable and scientifically literate when in fact they are typically less knowledgeable than people were in generations past.  Note I did not say “less informed” about events in the world or having less access to information. But they’ve thought so little and in such fleeting, candy-sized media-wrapped sound bytes about the issues they are discussing that they are closer to being enemies of reason than friends.

The majority of those on whose shoulders Western Civilization stands would have been baffled by the attitudes of those talking such a big game about logic and reason. Had they been put in a time machine and dropped in the middle of the recent “Reason Rally” they would have thought they were in a different universe where “reason” must mean something else. What, after all, would someone like John Locke have thought of the advice of Richard Dawkins, arguably the intellectual spokesman for contemporary atheism, to the crowds at the “Reason Rally”? What would such a preeminent thinker as Locke – so massively influential in shaping British thought at the time as well as upon the American framers, a man who wrote, among so many other things, an essay actually entitled “The Reasonableness of Christianity” – what would he think upon hearing the leading voice for popular atheism urge his throngs to employ the strategy of contempt, ridicule and mockery against religious believers? So much for “logic” and “reason.”

There are atheists who do understand the meaning of reason, and they do their cause at least the favor of rising above the foolishness of throwing those words around without comprehending them. One such example is Robert Paul Wolff, a philosopher whose textbook About Philosophy is among those on my shelf. In it Wolff writes that although he identifies as an atheist, he is incapable of contempt toward those who believe otherwise. He knows too much. He has drunk deep from the spring. Depth in philosophy, to paraphrase Bacon, keeps bringing this atheist’s mind back around to the theological possibilities.  In his text Wolff praises the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, calling the melancholy Dane “the most gifted” of all the important thinkers in our history. Wolff writes candidly that although he is an atheist, “as a lifelong philosopher, I am forced to recognize that almost every great Western thinker for whom I have profound respect thinks that I am wrong.” This, Wolff admits, often makes him “a little nervous.”


Faith and Reason

As old a topic as it is, the contemporary abuse of words like “logic” and “reason” begs for us to revisit the discussion of the role of reason in the realm of faith. And while we’re chastising those who wave the flag of reason like they are its sole custodians, we need to remind a certain segment of the faithful and devout that reason is not a weapon of darkness. I said above that reason is nobody’s child, and that includes Satan. Reason is not a tool of the Evil One that you should resist. The truth is that you can’t resist it anyway as was explained already. To make a case against reason you must use it.

Christians do not idolize reason, nor do we scorn it. When the Gospel of John employs “logos” in its opening line, you can be sure that the writer does not despise the voice of reason, which he no doubt recognizes as the voice of God, imperfect as we are at hearing and discerning it accurately.  All revelation presupposes rational agents – even if imperfect ones –  who can comprehend basic communication. Truth is dependent upon the most basic principles of logic. Otherwise the written word is just markings and the spoken word (“rhema”) is just noise. Show me a Christian who claims to be opposed to reason and I’ll show you someone who (a) doesn’t understand the nature of reason to begin with, and (b) is probably failing miserably to achieve the kind of wisdom and discernment toward which a disciple is supposed to strive.

Faith and reason are not cosmic foes fighting on behalf of God and Satan, respectively. That is as idiotic a parody as the parody of faith itself in which it is naive assent to patently false propositions, a la “believin’ what ain’t so”. C. S. Lewis once called faith “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods” (Mere Christianity). It is a kind of trust that endures through the tumultuous and fickle emotional roller coaster of life. It is the “substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1) where “hope” is understood in the biblical sense of being tethered to something solid but beyond your immediate vision or grasp, not mere “wishing” or escapism.

The mind is not murdering reason in order to make room for faith. Reason cannot be killed, and if it could be, any meaningful concept of faith would die with it, and no contemplation or discussion of anything would be possible from that moment on. For the opponent of faith to thump his chest and announce that he believes in logic and reason is as useless as if he said, “I believe in saying words out loud that express my views.”  My response to either one is, “Uh, .. OK. Me too. Now what is your argument?”

How Not to Debate a Christian Apologist

In an article on Huffington Post (naturally) entitled How to Debate a Christian Apologist, atheist Victor Stenger explains why non-Christians usually do so badly in debates with Christians and then offers a cheat sheet of brief answers to Christian apologetic arguments. The reason why the Christians do so well, according to Stenger, is that they have had years to polish their arguments in their religion classes and churches. The atheists, apparently, don’t have comparable opportunities. This will come as a surprise to Christian students throughout the Western world who have sat under atheists and other skeptical professors routinely spouting off against Christianity even if it entails ignoring the subject matter of the course. Continue Reading →

Ancient Confession Found: ‘We Invented Jesus Christ’

covertMessiahA press release came out two days ago about an upcoming conference in the UK where the world will learn from two scholars that the Romans actually invented Christianity.

A concerned man read the press release and, feeling a bit shaken, contacted the Credo House for help. The press release for the conference can be found here:

Here was our quick response so when it hits the news in the next couple weeks you will hopefully have already thought through it a bit:

Whenever something like this comes up we first need to say, “Ok, show me your evidence.” Is Joseph Atwill’s evidence more compelling than the idea that Jesus was who Christians believe him to be.

In this realm I think Dr. Mike Licona’s book on the historical reliability of the Resurrection is helpful, Dr. Craig Blomberg’s book on the historical reliability of the Gospels and Dr. Darrell Bock and other scholar’s many works on the historical Jesus. There are many more works in this vein that show how we should go about having confidence in the historical reality of the events communicated in the Bible. Even an atheist like Dr. Bart Ehrman will think it is historically absurd to claim that Jesus never existed.

It looks like Joseph Atwill is building his whole argument off of a new way to interpret the writings of Josephus. A way that might even be hard for people to understand. He even admits in the article that he thinks he has seen something in Josephus that all other scholars have missed. He writes, ” Many of the parallels are conceptual or poetic, so they aren’t all immediately obvious. After all, the authors did not want the average believer to see what they were doing, but they did want the alert reader to see it. An educated Roman in the ruling class would probably have recognised the literary game being played.”

It seems from an observation of history, however, that educated Romans were not making the claims of Mr. Atwill. Paul’s interaction with the Aereopagus on Mars Hill is a good example. All people involved were educated Romans yet this idea of a Roman concoction of Jesus was never mentioned. We have absolutely no evidence, at least that I’ve ever heard, that anyone claimed the whole story of Jesus was invented by the Romans.
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Would President Obama Bomb the Canaanites?

I’ll get right to the point. I think President Obama would have bombed the Canaanites way before God annihilated them. Why am I even bringing up this hypothetical situation? Are statements like this even helpful for us today in our walk with God? For those questions I need to back up a little bit.

obamaI sat at the Credo House, in Heretics Corner, having a very important conversation. A young man who had been a strong believer the last time we met had grown shaky in many of his beliefs. This guy, whom I’ll call Jake, grew up in a very liberal part of the country and was born to liberal parents. His parents are intellectual people who view Christianity to be the opium of the masses.

Jake, slowly but surely, had been worn down by many conversations with atheist family members. Jake and I sat down to discuss many aspects of Christianity he was struggling to believe. After more than an hour and a half of great conversation he finally dropped the bomb. He said, “Alright, this is it, here’s the big one. My family and friends bring this up all the time and I’ve never heard a convincing response. Why is God so unjust in the Old Testament? How can God be loving when he does things like kill the Canaanites?

It’s a wonderful moment in any serious conversation to get to the real heart of an issue. Jake and I had been discussing issues in the periphery and now we were in the center of what was really bothering him. How does an intellectually honest Christian live with a God who called for the annihilation of the Canaanites? I know some of you reading this will think there is no such thing as an intellectually honest Christian, but please humor me for a bit while I talk nonsense.

Whenever we move into the issue of some of God’s actions in the Old Testament I typically have an image pop into my head. For some strange reason I go back to Thanksgiving. I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving many years ago when I finally was able to move from the little kids table to the adult table. At least at my house growing up we had a big table reserved for just the kids at Thanksgiving. We had another big table for all the grownups. Some cultures have elaborate ceremonies marking the passage from childhood to adulthood. The great ceremony, for me at least, was moving from the kids to the adult table.

I was so excited to move from the little kids table but it did have a distinct drawback. The conversations at the adult table were all about adult topics. If I wanted to sit at the adult table I needed to be willing to have an adult conversation. If you’re willing to criticize God for His actions in the Old Testament, you need to be willing to have adult level conversations.

If you are not willing to have an adult level conversation about God, please do not continue reading this post. Additionally, if you are under the age of 18, please stop reading this post. I’m going to get into some topics I want your parents to preview before you read. Seriously, stop reading if you have a weak stomach or are young.

Okay, I’m assuming everyone reading right now is consciously sitting at the adult table ready for an adult conversation. Here we go.

Before jumping directly into dealing with the Canaanites, let’s take a step back from that particular time and place and observe our world.

Let’s not pretend we live in a white-washed world. We live in a world where terms like Holocaust; Rwandan Genocide; and Darfur, Sudan have meaning. These atrocities were not committed by precocious little kids stealing candy from their sisters. These events were horrific. If my 6 year-old son asks me what happened during World War II, I can only provide a sugar-coated answer. I can only use simple words like good guys fought bad guys. I must hold back my more detailed adult knowledge.

Just last week I heard about an evil causing me to take a few shallow breathes. The details of this dreadful evil are difficult to even swallow at the adult table. Several men in New Delhi, India boarded a public transit bus and started gang raping a young girl. After raping her repeatedly they eventually rammed a metal rod up into her body which brutally ended her life. Four men were arrested and tried as adults. Some additional boys involved in the rape were so young they couldn’t be tried as adults.

Now, New Delhi is known as the rape capitol of India. Rape is common there and the men are usually given the benefit of the doubt. It is quite possible these men could have received a slap on the wrist. How could they get less than the full wrath of India?

I could probably make a case that none of these men would have done this terrible crime on their own. They were overcome by a mob mentality. The power of the group took over and each person lost their head. Yes, these young men should definitely be sentenced to prison but since they experienced a mob mentality there should be some leniency, perhaps.

Based on the knowledge the Indian society gained regarding the details of the crime, however, the young men were sentenced last week to death by hanging. The collective response throughout India was a recognition that justice had been served. When we put God on the stand and try him for being unjust, we need to remember there are terrible deeds happening in 2013 requiring extreme justice.

Let’s start going back in time a few thousand years and analyze the morality of the Ancient Near East. You may have heard of Baal worship. Baal is frequently symbolized in the form of a bull. Why? Because the people recognized the large testicles of bulls. Why did this matter? Well, people who worshiped Baal were many times looking for it to rain. In an agricultural society rain is of utmost importance. Baal worshipers thought they could force the hand of their god and make it rain.
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That Age-Old Question: Why Do Good Things Happen?

Forget for a moment the question of why there is evil in the world. Ask: why is there good in the world? Bad things happen to people, but have you noticed that good things do too? We’re easily inclined to say that life should be better than it is. But why aren’t we inclined to think that life should be worse? If there is philosophical merit in the first question, there should be some merit in this reciprocal question, and in fact this question should be paramount for people who hold to certain philosophical worldviews (more on that in a minute).

Of course the age-old question, despite my sanguine title, is not about the existence of good but rather the opposite. The issue of evil and suffering remains the all-time league leader among vexing philosophical, theological, and – frankly- psychological problems. Why must all human beings endure so many hardships in this world? Life is so riddled with painful elements, from the minor discomforts and inconveniences facing us in day to day living all the way to the shocking and disturbing tragedies that scar our collective historical memory.

The problem of evil, pain, and suffering is as old as human beings. It is found in the most ancient texts. One of the oldest biblical writings is Job, maybe as gut-wrenching a book as can be found from antiquity. There was never an era or epoch when the question of suffering wasn’t foremost on people’s minds. And even though so much of life has become so much more comfortable for us in the contemporary world, this question still plagues people. It remains, as theologian Hans Kung once called it, “the rock of atheism.” Every popular and provocative atheist book of the last decade has basically been, at bottom, about this one topic.  Even when we think a famous person’s disbelief is owing to something else, it usually isn’t. The agnosticism of Darwin, for example, was based upon this issue rather than what people are likely to assume it was. The issue was philosophical, not scientific. He had far less of a problem imagining an intelligent designer working behind the scenes than he did imagining why the designer would let nature be so savage in so many ways – right up to and including the death of his own beloved daughter.

All of that being said, our present culture is not exactly known for deep contemplation of anything. So not surprisingly the problem of evil and suffering is frequently raised by people who think they may be onto something profound for the first time. I heard an interview not long ago in which a localized NPR radio show called “Radio West” spoke to theologian and commentator Al Mohler about recent tragedies in the news (marathon bombings, Oklahoma tornadoes, etc.). Upon hearing Mohler articulate a fairly classical Christian understanding of evil in the world, the host and a few callers reacted as though they had never heard this talked about with any depth prior to that conversation.

Still, the question of why so many bad things happen remains something we cannot get off of our minds. But I wonder why it does not occur to us to ask the inverse question of why people get to experience so many good things in life.  If God is watching, we instinctively perceive that he is to blame for all of the bad things that go on; but what about the good things? The 19th Century Victorian poet Christina Rossetti wrote, “Were there no God, we would be in this glorious world with grateful hearts and no one to thank.” Have you ever seriously contemplated the “Problem of Good”? People who do not believe in any sort of ultimate goodness should be particularly confounded by this question. Think of it: if no person like God exists, if from the start no purpose lay behind the origin and structure of this universe, and if the only game being played out is the strictly biological one, why should there be such varied experiences of joy in the lives of people? “Nature is a wicked old witch,” wrote the late evolutionary biologist George Williams.  She is “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson famously put it.  Why, then, are there creatures like ourselves with so much capacity for so much rich enjoyment of life?

Philosopher Peter Kreeft offers an argument for God along these lines, focusing on the aesthetic qualities of our lives. We have a strange capacity to do far more than just eat, sleep, reproduce, survive and rear our young so as to make our genes successful in the brutally competitive struggle that characterizes survival of the fittest. We can enjoy all of these elements to a greater degree than you would think the blind processes of nature would allow. Kreeft considers the deep fulfillment we find in relationships, the way we enjoy fine food and great music, the power of profound stories and the way art can capture the imagination . At times these things can border on the sublime. The kind of love and longing that C. S. Lewis (one of Kreeft’s favorite people) talked about as a key to his spiritual awakening is part of the true and intense beauty of living, even in a place where disease, crime and ultimately death cause us so much grief and angst.  If we are going to ask why the latter, shouldn’t we also ask why the former?

And it’s not as if Lewis had too easy a life to comprehend tragedy and sorrow. The man who wrote a personal and probing book on the topic (The Problem of Pain) after the death of his wife had also seen the trenches of WWI, from which he was sent home wounded, and had years later lived through the Nazi bombing raids over London, during which his voice was heard weekly on BBC radio broadcasts reading words he had written to help bring calm and focus to the frazzled, frightened public. Those radio addresses, written and delivered during one of that city’s darkest periods, went on to become the chapters of one of the all-time best-selling books: Mere Christianity.

The good things in the world present as much a riddle to us as the bad things. Both beckon us to ultimate questions. The only reason we would obsess exclusively about the issue of pain and evil, while never pausing to consider the other side of the coin, is the near-sighted sense of entitlement to which we’re all naturally prone. We take the good things for granted, as if they are the norm or the default, and the bad things shock our senses as the inexplicable exceptions.

The late atheist pundit Christopher Hitchens was fond of likening the universe to a cosmic North Korea ruled over by a dictatorial deity. But as sure as Hitchens suffered his share of problems, right up to the problem of his own withering health, did he not also experience a life of many enjoyments? Did he not secure an outlet as a writer and a platform for fame? Did he not fill rooms with people who enjoyed his sardonic wit and lined up for his autograph? Did he not rub elbows with important cultural and political voices during a very long public career? Did he not spend many a fine meal regaling the table with his sharply sarcastic critiques of so many things in the news? Why would the all-powerful ‘Kim Jong Ill in the sky’ be so good to him as to allow all of that? Why would that cruel cosmic meanie give so many pleasures to a man who railed against him ceaselessly?

If the world is ruled over by a figure of omnipotent viciousness and cold cruelty, we should expect a thousand times more hardship in life than we experience. Likewise if the story of human history is nothing more than the story of a race of creatures on a distant galactic outpost where, by a crazy long-shot, a zillion factors lined up to make their existence possible, then all of our eloquent lyricizing and philosophizing about good and evil amount to nothing more than sounds going out into the atmosphere and never beyond it. As Doug Wilson put it, “the material universe doesn’t care about any of this foolishness, not even a little bit … it’s all just part of a gaudy and very temporary show. Sometimes the Northern lights put on a show in the sky. Sometimes people put on a show on the ground. Then the sun goes out and it turns out nobody cares” (Letter from a Christian Citizen).

Yes the problem of good and the problem of evil both force our attention and require us to consider more seriously the kind of reality in which we live.  No response is neat and tidy so as to satisfy us completely, but, like Wilson and unlike Hitchens (the two men, incidentally, are featured in a series called Collision that highlights their uniquely antagonistic friendship through several public debate appearances), I would maintain that the Christian understanding of things makes more sense of good and evil than the alternatives.