JOHN 11:35 NASB
What makes a person become an atheist? The atheist may offer various arguments from science and philosophy, and they can all be answered. When you finally clear away these arguments, you will see a bit of emotion come into the conversation, and the atheist will lay out it to you. How can a benevolent and omnipotent God allow all this human evil and suffering? At this point in the conversation, the Christian falls silent. The Christian cannot give an answer because there is no answer. Neither the Bible nor the Church can provide a satisfactory answer for this dilemma. The atheist is left with the options of denying God's benevolence or His omnipotence but opts instead for the least offensive conclusion. God simply doesn't exist. Evil and suffering exist because the universe is indifferent, and things just happen. All things happen by chance, and the random event of your existence will end with some other random event like an airplane crash or ebola.
The story of Lazarus in the Bible is the New Testament response to the problem of evil and suffering. In the Old Testament, you look to the Book of Job, but the New Testament gives us Lazarus. The gist of the story is like this. Jesus loved Lazarus very much, but he let Lazarus die of an illness that He could have cured. When He arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, Lazarus had been dead for many days. Now, Jesus allowed this event to transpire to instill greater faith in those who would be there. The purpose of all miracles is to give faith and assurance to the faithful. It is to help them carry on. So, the evil of the death of Lazarus was permitted, so that this greater thing could happen. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus breaks down in emotion. He weeps for His friend and all those who loved him. Then, He raises Lazarus from the dead.
The story matters because it tells us definitively that God is both omnipotent and benevolent. Jesus can raise people from the dead, and He does care that people die. But even this miracle is small comfort when we consider that Lazarus would return to that tomb again. In the whole scheme of things, this miracle is just a band-aid. The ultimate resurrection at the end of time is when the cure comes. In the meantime, we endure and persevere.
Jesus would go on to do something even more extraordinary. He would suffer the same fate as Lazarus and raise Himself from the dead. The Lazarus event served as a precursor to that ultimate tragedy and miracle. Still, the disciples lost faith. They ran hoping to escape the fate that they would all embrace heartily in the future.
The challenge of evil and suffering is to retain faith when the temptation is to despair. I am someone who gave into that temptation in my life. I believed in God, and I lost my faith when I found the body of my friend who had committed suicide. I had been studying to become a Presbyterian minister when that tragic event blindsided me leaving me stunned and bewildered. I withdrew from seminary and those plans to become a clergyman. I couldn't believe anymore in a God who would allow such a thing to happen. In hindsight, I can see more clearly now that God was sparing me from the awful fate of being a Calvinist heretic. Had that event not happened, I would not be a Roman Catholic today. But my journey took me through a dark valley of atheism.
I wasn't like the other atheists who spend endless hours debating God's existence on internet messageboards and comboxes. This was because I was more atheist than they were. These atheists struggle with the knowledge that they are wrong, so they try so hard not to convince others but to convince themselves. I would laugh at them because I knew things they did not. I had tasted the horror. I had looked into the abyss. I was utterly faithless. Believing in God hurt so bad that atheism was relief from the agony and pain of trying to have faith in a God who had let me down. If God existed, He was the God of stillborn children, the Holocaust, and bodies mangled in various ways from war and disaster. God was the God of dead roommates who killed themselves because they could no longer stomach the awfulness of existence.
Most atheists are hot atheists. They are passionate about their atheism because they have their doubts about their atheism. But I was a cold atheist. I was an atheist without doubt. God did not exist, and my one comfort in life was that when things become too bad I could escape into non-existence. I hung by a fingernail over an abyss of nihilism, and I look back knowing that I was very close to falling into Hell. To this day, I can dip into that agony at will and bring back those dark emotions and the despair I felt. None of it is gone. I suspect that God allows us to suffer. so that we will have these dark gifts. In much the same way that Jesus could show the wounds of His crucifixion in His body, we carry these wounds in our soul. I do not understand this mystery. What I do understand is that I am in a better place today as a consequence of my suffering than I was in my twenties before any of those tragic events had ever happened to me. I have no desire to return to my days of naiveté when I knew everything. I am grateful for the suffering that I endured. What I have now is worth more than all that I lost.
My suffering has not ended. To live is to suffer. But I have faith now. What made me regain faith when I had lost it? Part of it was learning new things denied to me as an ignorant Protestant. But realizing that the Catholic Church was the right church was a moot point to an atheist who did not believe in God. I simply did not believe. I remember sitting in a chair and contemplating all that I had learned and seeing where I had been in error. I could not believe in any of it. But I wanted to believe, and it was at that moment the scales fell from my eyes. The lights came back on. I became alive again. I was Lazarus stumbling out of that tomb.
My argument with atheists is a simple one. I don't debate whether it is true or not. I believe it is true, but this misses the point. Faith is not an issue of having the correct facts. So, the question I ask is the same one I asked myself. Do you want it to be true? That really cuts to the heart of it. Would you want God to be real? For me, I always wanted God to be real, but the brute facts of life made this impossible. For most atheists, the answer is that they don't want God to be real at all. It is one thing to curse the sun. It is another thing to gouge out one's eyes because the light from that sun is so bright.
My story now begs an argument. Haven't you simply stepped back into the world of illusions? Aren't you the one who has deliberately blinded himself to the realities of this awful life? If I had become a Protestant again, the answer to that question would be yes. But I didn't. I know ignorance, and I know horror. And being Catholic causes me more suffering in this life instead of less. If it is an illusion, it is not a comfortable illusion. It is a painful one. I am well acquainted with suffering. I see evil on a daily basis. I wonder why God allows abortion in this country when the faithful have prayed for four decades for it to stop. I see children born with microcephaly and wonder how God can allow such tragedy. I see my brothers and sisters in the faith raped and beheaded by ISIS and wonder when justice will come.
I have no answer to the problem of evil. I am with Flannery O'Connor when she said that evil is not a problem to be solved so much as a mystery to be endured. I have faith, and I endure this mystery. I know that there is a Resurrection and a Judgment Day. There is a Heaven, and there is a Hell. It will all work out in the end. Only one question remains. Will all that we have suffered and endured be worth it in the end? As somone who has already suffered, I can say that it will be. Whatever is lost in this life will be worth what we are to gain in the next life.