When the Atheist Shouts ‘Children with Leukemia!’

His problem is as big as yours.

By David Mills Published on February 5, 2015

You have begun to say something about the church or about Jesus, when the neighborhood atheist shouts “Children with leukemia!”, with all the assurance of a gambler laying down a royal flush when you’ve put all the money you have in the pot. He thinks he’s laid down an unbeatable argument against the existence of God, and that you ought to give up right away.

Many of us do look away and shuffle our feet when someone throws the suffering of children at us as an argument against God. It really does seem like the royal flush of religious arguments. We know that such things should not be and don’t easily see why God lets them be. Christians feel this too.

Recently the English actor Stephen Fry was asked on an Irish television show what he’d say if he died and found that God existed after all. He said that he’d say to God: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Two versions

This kind of argument comes in two versions. The simple one argues that really, really bad things happen in the world and therefore God can’t exist. That is the one we hear most often. (For one thing, it’s simple and easy to remember.) That Fry’s version. We can’t deny its force.

The more sophisticated version argues that by definition God must be both all powerful and perfectly loving, but the evil in the world shows that either he isn’t all powerful or he isn’t perfectly loving. He either can’t overcome evil or he doesn’t want to. In either case, he isn’t God.

The philosophers and theologians have given us several answers to what is called the problem of evil, but most of the people who yell “Children with leukemia!” probably don’t want to engage their arguments. (Here is the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft’s explanation and here the evangelical philosophers E. Calvin Beisner and Chad Meister explanation.) And if they do want to engage the arguments, most of us can’t really discuss them well in a conversation. The theologians’ arguments are not arguments for the backyard or the dinner table.

Here I want to suggest something you can say that might at least make your neighbor back down, and might get him to think more deeply about the problem. Simply point out that he has an equally big problem, by asking him, “So why is there something and not nothing?” You may have the problem of explaining why God allows children to die of leukemia, but he has the problem of explaining why we have the world we do and why we’re here at all to ask questions like his.

He likes a lot of things in the world around him, like sunshine, his children, hamburgers, and his local football team, especially if they’re winning. He knows some things are good, like feeding the hungry, and some things are wrong, like abusing children. He believes the world operates according to rational laws.

But how does he explain this? The Christian can begin with “God created the heavens and the earth,” but the neighborhood atheist, what can he say that makes sense of the world? He has a problem at least as big as yours.

Of course, he may dig in his heels and declare “It just happened.” If he does, you can respond to his “Children with leukemia!” with “God has his reasons.” If he wants to appeal to a mystery, you can too.

In any case, as arguments go, it is at least a tie, which in this case may be all you can hope for. You’ve at least demonstrated that the matter is more complicated than he thought, and that’s all to the good.

If the World’s an Accident

Your atheist friend may instead say something about the Big Bang, and the primordial soup, and atoms somehow coming together to form life, and evolution, and adventurous fish crawling up on land, and fish becoming mammals, and one of those mammals growing into self-consciousness and becoming man.

He will think this story an adequate answer to your challenge. Even if it were an adequate answer, and it’s not, it undermines his original objection to your belief in God. What he has said is that the universe is here by accident. Everything: the planet, the plants and animals, the mosquito and the butterfly, the plague bacillus and the rose, him, you.

If the world is just an accident, he can’t complain about evil. Because if everything came into being accidentally, nothing is good or evil. The world is morally neutral. It’s just there.

Let’s go back to his objection. If he’s right about the universe, leukemia is just a biological process, like the atoms coming together in the primordial soup. The child himself is just a biological process. The leukemia cells have as much right to live as the child they invade.

And lots of animals have disappeared through the ages, so why not man? Why not this particular child? It’s all part of the evolutionary struggle and the survival of the fittest. It’s not good, it’s not evil, it’s just the way things are.

So, perhaps unexpectedly, one has to believe in some sort of God — some superior being who can measure good and evil — in order to deny that God exists. But that’s your atheist neighbor’s problem, not yours.



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