Yesterday's post discussed one classical response of theists to the problem of evil based upon the assumed existence of human free will. It was pointed out that although human volition may account for some kinds of evil, what's usually called moral evil, the question remains as to why an all-powerful, benevolent God would tolerate evil that resulted not from human free will but from natural causes like storms, accidents, famine, and disease.
Before attempting to address this question, we should be reminded that in yesterday's post it was stipulated that the understanding of God's power that we're working with holds that God can do anything that is logically possible to do, i.e. God can do anything that does not entail a contradiction or a logically inconceivable state of affairs. For example, it is not within God's power to create a world in which it would be true to say that God did not create it. That's a logical impossibility and not even God can do the logically impossible.
So, the question before us is, wouldn't a perfectly good and omnipotent creator have designed a world in which there was no natural evil. One way to answer this question, perhaps, is to suggest that it may not be possible, even for God, to create a world governed by physical laws in which there's no potential for harm. Any world governed by gravity, for instance, and the law of momentum is going to contain within it the potential for people to fall and suffer injury. Thus the laws of gravity and momentum are not compossible with a world free of the potential for injury. Once God decided to create a world governed by laws, those laws entailed the possibility of harm.
At this point it might be objected that theists hold that God creates heaven and that heaven is a world in which there is no natural evil so it must be possible for a world governed by laws of some kind to exist without there being any human suffering. If God could create heaven, why wouldn't he, if he was perfectly good, create this world like that?
Perhaps the answer is that God did create this world like that. Perhaps the reason that there is no evil in heaven is that God's presence suffuses that world, fills every nook and cranny and acts as a governor, an override, on the laws which might otherwise result in harm to beings which exist there. The skeptic might rejoin that even were he to grant that God's presence in heaven could serve as an override to the laws which govern that world, that doesn't help the theist because there's no reason why God couldn't do that here in this world as well, and, since he doesn't, he must not be perfectly good.
This is, however, exactly what Christian theology says that God did, in fact, do. The account goes something like this: God created a world regulated by the laws of physics and indwelt that world with man, his presence negating any harmful effects the expression of those laws may have had. Although the potential for harm existed, there was no disease, suffering, accident, or even death. At some point, however, man betrayed the idyllic relationship that existed between himself and God. In an act of cosmic infidelity, man chose to use his freedom in a way, the only way, apparently, that God had forbidden. It was as if a good and faithful husband returned home to discover the love of his life in bed with his worst enemy.
If, as was suggested yesterday, God did not foresee this crushing blow coming, it must have broken his heart, metaphorically speaking. Man had made a choice to treat with contempt the wishes of his creator, and God would not force him to do otherwise. Grief-stricken at the rejection he suffered at the hands of his beloved, God withdrew his presence from the world, leaving man, in his self-imposed, self-chosen alienation and estrangement, to fend for himself against the laws and forces which govern the universe.
God did not abandon man entirely, but he has given man his autonomy, he has set man free in the world. All subsequent history is the story of God's attempt to woo mankind back to himself, to win back the heart of his unfaithful lover. God's love for us still burns, and he wants us back despite our disloyalty. Indeed, he desires our love so much that he redeems us himself. Man's infidelity deserves eternal divorce, eternal separation, from God, but God atones for our unfaithfulness himself on the cross in the person of Jesus the Messiah. The story of God's redemption is a beautiful, tragic story, a romance, a story of faithfulness, goodness and perseverance, and it's a story that makes sense of human history.
If God does not exist, if death is the end, then all of life, all of history, is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." There is no purpose, there is no significance. It's all absurd. The evil which besets us, the suffering, pain, and grief we experience, are all meaningless. They're all for nothing. Atheism, carried to its logical conclusion, ends in nihilism, the belief that nothing has meaning, nothing has value, nothing matters.
In the face of this despair Christianity infuses life with hope, meaning, and dignity. Christianity redeems the absurdity of the world by insisting that nothing in our world is for nothing. There is a reason for our existence and a reason why there is evil. We may not know what it is, but if we were created by God we may assume that God had a purpose for doing so, and that that purpose is our purpose. If our world is beset by evil we have grounds for hoping that there is a reason why God endures it, and that in some future existence justice will be done and suffering will be no more.
Atheism offers none of this. In a world without God people are born out of nothingness, they suffer, and eventually sink back into the void from whence they came, and there's no significance or meaning to it at all. Atheism offers no basis for hope that there is any ultimate meaning to life or any ultimate justice in the world. It offers no basis for believing that right and wrong are grounded in anything other than subjective feeling. It offers no basis for granting human beings dignity and significance. In a world without God there is no point or purpose to life beyond whatever short-term goals we set for ourselves to keep us from reflecting on the fact that everything we do ultimately goes for naught.
Christianity may not be true, but each of us, including the atheist, should certainly hope that it is. Inexplicably, most atheists hope for the very opposite. They hope that they are right that there is no God. The atheist, in fact, finds himself in the awkward position of holding firmly to a view which, one might think, he should hope with all his heart and mind is completely wrong.