The “boomerang effect” of the moral argument against God

October 21, 2013

One seemingly strong argument against God’s existence has to do with something David Hume once wrote:

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is [God] willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?[1]

Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Voltaire led the modern charge against God’s existence with this kind of moral argument. How can we believe in a benevolent God when there is so much evil in the world?

This remains a pervasive argument among atheists today. It was the foundation of the late Christopher Hitchens’s “new atheist” bestseller many years ago. People make the argument after natural disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or even after appalling example of human-made evil like Newtown. If you don’t believe the argument is widespread, consult the comments section of any Huffington Post article from sympathetic Christian writers who write as if the scale of suffering and evil embarrasses their Christian faith (such articles are legion over there).

While I feel the weight of the argument viscerally, the logic of arguing from scale escapes me: If it’s wrong for God to allow 300,000 people to die in one fell swoop from a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, is it any less wrong for three people to die from a tornado in a trailer park? As C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, arguments from scale are a red herring. There’s no sense speaking of a “sum of suffering” because no one suffers it. The worst suffering in the world is the maximum pain that one person can experience, which is horrifying enough.

If we’re going be indignant, let’s be indignant on behalf of one person’s suffering. Attempting to “multiply” that suffering by the number of people suffering should add no further indignation.

But the point of this post is indignation. Many of us are indignant about God’s permitting genocide, or holocausts, or large-scale natural disasters, or torture, or the suffering of young children. If God exists at all, God is wrong, or evil, or immoral.

As Timothy Keller observes in his new book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, arguing against God on the basis of morality has a “boomerang effect.”

It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?

We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it shows you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.[2]

Keller goes on to cite a few atheists who converted to Christianity on this basis, including C.S. Lewis.

Of course, nothing I’m saying (or Keller is saying) begins to “prove” God’s existence. As atheist friends would say, wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. But let’s concede that we all want it to be true, at least the non-sociopaths among us. We want our incredibly strong intuition about right and wrong to be based on something more substantial than our personal feelings, proclivities, or tastes.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 85.

2. Ibid., 103-4.

2 Responses to “The “boomerang effect” of the moral argument against God”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is all certainly true and an argument C.S. Lewis also stated very well. However, I think we have to take “one step further” with the atheist and say that there is an answer to his question, not just that he has no basis to ask it. We have to get to the problem of disobedience and how that warped the universe out of its original perfect condition, and that we therefore suffer all kinds of dire effects. Without an appreciation of the magnitude of effects flowing from sin, an atheist will not understand suffering (though, of course, if he is willing to admit sin, he will be coming near to leaving his atheism behind). Of course, natural disasters may be a little harder to explain on this model, but I believe “the whole creation groans and travails” as an ultimate result of sin, not merely the human race, even though we might have some difficulty with any immediate cause and effect. Satan is the “prince of the power of the air,” and also God does punish sin, another thing that gives the atheist heartburn.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yep. I’m curious to see whether or the extent to which Keller brings Satan and the Fall into it.

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