A common theodicy problem between Christians (or theists in general) and atheists and agnostics concerns the problem of evil. However, this problem is not the same on both sides. A video posted by a friend of mine  on the comment section of a recent blog entry led me to ponder on the lack of symmetry between the extent of the problem of evil for a theist and that of an atheist or agnostic. Specifically, I would wish to discuss the problem of evil and its difficulties from the point of view of Christianity and contrast it with its much more serious level of difficulty for atheism.
The problem of an evil is a large problem for atheists and agnostics. It is something they constantly gripe and complain about, blame Christianity (and God) for, and moan about. Why is the world so evil if there is a God, they ask? While these arguments no doubt have a lot of superficial appeal (there is a lot of evil in this world, obviously), they lack any kind of logical coherence. After all, an atheist has no grounds other than personal subjective preference to define good and evil. They do not wish to accept the authority of the God of Scripture or His laws to define good and evil (which is what a believing Christian or Jew would do), but they wish to bemoan the evil that exists in this world even as they undercut any absolute system of morality. This is a muddled, inconsistent, and intellectually dishonest worldview–you attack morality and then complain about the evil that erupts when standards of good and evil are no longer enforced. You can’t have it both ways–if you want the world to be good you have to defend an absolute standard of morality.
The fact that such fundamentally poor logic springs from atheistic arguments at the highest level of mankind’s philosophers (and variations of this can be found very commonly if one reads people like Dawkins or Ehrman or many others of their ilk) suggests that a fundamental error lies at the base of much of the village idiot’s movement known as atheism or agnosticism. This is logic so poor that a trivium educated teenager could poke holes in it, or that a garden variety theist recognizes as intellectually vacuous. It seems shocking that such poor logic characterizes even the “best” of such worldviews, and is entirely unchallenged by their fellows who ought to be probing them a bit more deeply. It suggests that irrationality and paralogic is at the basis of agnosticism and atheism, with the vaneer of intellectual pride to wall itself off from recognition of the logical inconsistencies.
Nonetheless, there is a problem of evil for theists in general (and for Christians specifically) but the problem is a different problem than that for atheists. Atheists have the problem that they cannot find a non-arbitrary definition of good and evil apart from the absolute morality they deny and attack. Theists (like Christians), on the other hand, have the problem of explaining the existence of evil within a worldview without falling into the heresy of dualism, ascribing evil an equal existence and worthiness to good. For a genuine theist, evil exists as the corruption of good and requires a prior existence of a good that can then become fallen and distorted and twisted into evil. This means that while good has an ultimate reality, evil is not original at all, which requires an understanding of “falling into evil” and “restoration to good.”
To give but one example, Christians believe that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose,” as it says in Romans 8:28. This does not require that all things be good, but that all things work together for good. This could mean any number of things. It does require that God is powerful enough to weave whatever happens, good or evil, for the ultimate benefit of mankind and for believers individually. It could mean that suffering evil makes someone more hostile to evil, more sensitive to it, and less likely to fall into corruption, thus making their salvation more sure and making their open hostility to evil (and their commitment to its eradication) more strong. It might mean blessings a hundred fold in the kingdom of heaven for the sufferings endured in this life. It might mean a greater empathy and compassion (and therefore more active aid given) for others who suffer in the same way we have. It could mean all of these things and many others–but as long as what we suffer works for the good, whether in this life or in the next, a Christian is content.
That is a contentment that an atheist or an agnostic cannot know. For one, a theist does not demand perfection in this life. In fact, many theists (Christians and Jews, for example) come from religious backgrounds that explicitly deny that perfection can be found in this life. Specifically, those of us who believe in free will admit openly that free will means that mankind has the doom of choice to choose obedience to God or disobedience, life or death, and it must be candidly admitted that a large majority of people choose disobedience and death. And we admit so having an idea of God’s design, in that God cannot force salvation upon anyone (grace is entirely resistible and is often resisted (see Acts 7:51 for but one example)), but that eternal life is only granted to those who choose life knowing what other possibilities exist. And the existence of those other possibilities means the certainty of pain and suffering that result from cutting one’s self off from God. And therefore a Christian (and theists in general) admit that there might be no justice or reward in this life and only the next, and that is acceptable for us.
It cannot be acceptable for an atheist or an agnostic, though. With a denial of the existence of God, of His goodness and power, or of any afterlife or ultimate judgment where this world’s wrongs can be righted, an atheist and an agnostic has no choice, if they desire to see good (as they arbitrarily define it), except to try to create a heaven on earth. This is why mankind is full of such horrors as Communism and Fascism and their attempt to wipe out the evil religious folk, the evil capitalist, the evil Jew, and to enshrine deranged visionary leaders with unlimited power to remake the world in their own sordid and corrupt image, slaughtering millions without the slightest remorse or hesitation. This is because an atheist or agnostic ‘knows’ that this life is all that matters and so anything that prevents their good from success in this life is a mortal enemy that must be dealt with here and now.
A theist can be a tyrant, but does so against the laws and standards of biblical religion. An atheist or agnostic, of whatever political strain, is compelled to be a tyrant because they neither can defend virtue on non-arbitrary ground nor accept delays or compromise to their vision of creating their own version of heaven on earth, whether it be a 1,000 year Reich or a classless worker’s paradise. And all such utopias end up as dystopias because the many who do not share the leader’s visions are enemies of the state, and must either die as victims of that tyranny, fight against their evil lunatic leaders, flee to some land where good may still be found, or live their entire lives as a deception where they pretend to follow and obey while trying to keep their innermost heart different, or end up corrupted themselves into the image of their wicked leaders. A nominal Christian may be a terrible and wicked oppressor because they are a bad Christian, but a self-consistent atheist or agnostic has no choice but to be an oppressive leader unless they wish to be a hypocrite for reasons of their own, because the only options to an atheist or agnostic is to feign obedience to God and to try to pass one’s self off as a theist (in which case one may rule well because one follows the right standards, whatever the fate of their eternal life), or to be consistent with their worldview and to behave wickedly and abominably. Those are the only choices. I for one would wish for consistent theists and hypocritical agnostics and atheists as far as that is concerned rather than the reverse.
Nonetheless, the problems of evil are different problems for theists and atheists. A theist can entirely consistently deny dualism, admit the massive evils of the world, and demand only that they end up for the good–and not even necessarily in this life. That is not too mighty of a standard to meet for even a very sensitive and socially conscious theist. For an atheist, there are insoluble problems at every level. First, how does one define good and evil apart from an absolute external standard. Second, how does one enforce good assuming that each individual has slightly different personal standards and there being no legitimate tribunal between them, only force or fraud by which those in power enforce their own arbitrary standards on everyone else, and nothing matters except the quest for power and influence so that one is the oppressor and not the oppressed. I rapidly see this world falling in that direction, into great evil, as a result of a more consistently agnostic or atheistic worldview, even among those who claim to be nominal theists for political reasons (not least because they wish to think themselves good). But that is a result of atheism and agnosticism, not the fault of Christianity or theism in general. If atheists and agnostics don’t like the evil they see in this world, they only need to look in the mirror. When you tell others that they are nothing more than monkeys and that there is no good and evil except the voice within yourselves, and that all standards of righteousness are purely arbitrary, don’t be surprised when people take you seriously. You only have yourselves to blame for the extent of evil that is in the world. If you don’t like it, become consistent theists and fight it along with the rest of us.