Atheists sometimes describe terrible diseases by which children suffer and die and declare that they would never believe in a God that would allow such things. Most of us have struggled with pain and evil and the profound issues they raise, while countless books wrestle with the pastoral, theological, and philosophical concerns. This short article, then, barely scratches the surface. Nonetheless, it answers a critical question that applies to this objection, and by extension to all objections against God’s existence: Can anyone know that God cannot exist because pain and evil exist? (The question of how moral evil came to be in a world created by a perfectly good, infinitely powerful, and all-knowing God will be addressed in a separate article.)
Life hurts. The pain of losing loved ones can bring the strongest among us to despair, while the history and scope of atrocities committed for ambition and power are staggering. Scripture blames the free choice of created beings for sin, bringing separation from God, spiritual darkness, and the curse of natural evil, including sickness, natural disasters, and death. “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), and all enter the world with Adam’s guilt and sinful bent, “original sin” (Rom. 5:12ff.). Rebellion against God has spoiled paradise, the same rebellion that denies God’s existence.
God can do what He pleases with what He created and sustains. He owes us nothing, every good we enjoy comes from His gracious hand, and we owe Him everything. “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Rom. 9:20 NAS). God is also good, wise, overflowing with lovingkindness, and righteous. He neither rewards wickedness nor punishes innocence. Yet, many have suffered under the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and religious terrorists. Moreover, babies yet to utter a bad word die in their parent’s arms, while others never leave the womb alive by meeting the scalpel of one sworn to do no harm. (Ironically, many that point to evil to deny God’s existence choose to make a virtue of killing the unborn.)
We have seen the atheists’ inability to know and explain transcendent realities, that human limitations reduce their basic claims to speculations and blind-faith in a presumed ability to know what they cannot possibly know. Atheists would need infinite knowledge to know that the infinite God does not exist, that the Bible miracles are impossible, that nothing exists beyond what we experience with our senses, and that God did not speak all things into existence in six days. And though people choose to believe that God does not exist from the existence of moral and natural evil, can they know it?
To know that the existence of pain and evil deny the existence of God, one would need to know that we do not exist forever after death; that temporary suffering cannot have an eternal purpose that we do not presently understand; that God will not ultimately execute justice and evil people will never get their just deserts; that no rewards and punishments will be given in the next life that compensate for what people do or suffer in this life; that evil will never be remedied and destroyed; that mankind is not responsible for moral evil and the curse that brought natural calamities; that God cannot righteously judge and curse the world because of sin; that God is unjust and mankind deserves better; and that God’s Word is false and does not explain all we need to know about pain and evil. The finite and fallen atheist cannot possibly know these things, and Scripture says none of them are true. None can possibly know that God does not exist from the presence of moral and natural evil in the world.
God identifies the heart of this unbelieving argument in His response to Job’s challenge to His righteousness: “Will you really annul My judgment? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” (Job 40:8 NAS). So, before we criticize God, maybe we should consider Job’s response, “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4 NAS). Created, dependent, and fallen people cannot judge or make claims on a perfect God.
God’s existence does not depend on our limited perspective and understanding, His ways are infinitely higher than ours (Isa. 55:9), in history and personal circumstances. To reject God’s existence because we do not understand something makes our limited understanding the standard of what can exist or be true, an unreasonable notion. Ultimate reality cannot be determined by the limited perspective and knowledge of people who still do not know the contents of their neighbor’s garage without having a look, who have never been beyond the three to four dimensions of their existence or been to the other side of the universe. Dismissing an infinite and holy God because we do not understand the existence of pain and evil is foolish. As it is, Scripture tells us all we need to know about it.
God has displayed His goodness in “satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Act 14:17 NAS). He “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45 NAS) and has made His power and glory known to all by what He has made (Rom. 1:18ff.). And greatest of all, God has displayed His infinite excellence and moral perfection in the person and saving work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Evil exists, but God has remedied it and will ultimately dispose of it, while “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18 NAS). Rather than encouraging the terrible evil of the world by denying the ultimate judgment of it, and by insulting the One to whom we owe all love, honor, and obedience, and leading others to do the same to face an eternity of suffering for it, perhaps atheists should give their life to Christ for forgiveness of their own evil. God is patient, “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9 NAS).
Mysteries abound, but our limited perspective determines nothing about God. In the end, all unbelief denies God’s obvious existence and authority from a desire to do what we want. Ironically, no greater evil exists than to deny and insult the One who created us, gives us all good things, and has willingly paid the price of infinite suffering for us that we might be holy and happy forever. We enjoy His blessings of love, family, food, friends, and the stars in the sky, but use our God-given talents to insult Him. Yes, evil exists, but none so terrible as contempt for the One to whom we owe all love, honor, and gratitude.
If you cry with the Psalmist, “when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?” (Ps. 2:1-3), the day will come when
He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:1-4 NAS).
May God grant grace that many atheists will join us through faith in Christ, in whom is true and everlasting life. Amen.
Scriptures marked NAS are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, copyright© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
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