In a survey by two atheists in the United Kingdom they found out that most people who walk away from faith and God do so over the problem of evil. This is a post about the problem of evil and how I wrestle with it in the context of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut and more. Its my claim that if a person is going to reject faith and God that the best reason to do so is the problem of evil.
“It is straightforward—and never mind, for now, about plagues and famines: if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.”
Martin Amis on September 11, 2001
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?“
September 11, 2001 Memorial in New York City
Two atheists in the United Kingdom created a survey that asked a number of people why they walked away from God and faith. I wrote about that in, “A Three Day Series at The Wondering Eagle: Why Atheists Walk Away From Faith, And how They Find Freedom and Hardship in the Process.” One of the most common answers for rejecting God dealt with the problem of evil. The problem of evil is a challenging and difficult issue. It has been my personal experience that this is the hardest question to answer. Below I will compare this and with other doubts and try and explain why the problem of evil is so vexing. When it comes to the problem of evil this blogger likes to use two situations to capture the horror, shock, and pain of this difficult topic. I do so because they help illustrate why the problem of evil is so difficult. The two issues are the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and school shootings like Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Though all of the school shootings from Columbine in Littleton, Colorado to Parkland in Florida make the point well. The problem of evil is raw and if a person is human it begs the question of why? Why does God allow _______ to happen. They were just a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald at 105 of One World Trade. Why a seven year old in a first grade classroom in Connecticut? These were people just living their life or starting theirs why did God allow such horrific evil to erase them from the earth and take them away from mother, fathers, siblings, friends and more?
The Problem of Evil in the Context of the September 11, 2001 Attacks
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks over the course of time have become a little more personal to me as time has passed. The reason is that I have come to know and interact with people who have been impacted by the terrorist attacks that took place in both New York City and Washington, D.C. Last fall I had dinner with someone who worked in the World Trade Center but had the day off for jury duty. What do you say to a story like that? Here in D.C. through a sports league if I remember correctly I heard a story of a person who worked at the impact zone of the Pentagon. They left their desk and went to have a smoke break right before American Flight 77 slammed into the building. That was how they survived. There was another time I was taking the cab to Reagan National Airport and the cab driver explained to me how he was on 395 across from the Pentagon when he saw the plane descend. For him years later it was almost like it happened yesterday.
As I have aged I have come to realize that September 11, 2001 was about the loss of families and people. How many parents lost a son or daughter in the World Trade Center? How many marriages were lost by the tragedy? What is the irony to do a deployment abroad in the United States military and be killed at your desk or cube in the Pentagon? While Christians will say that there is no such thing as an innocent person because of sin I must ask, what did the people who died on that Tuesday morning deserve? Why did that have to happen? Why the overwhelming loss of life? If you don’t feel sick about the fact that some people jumped from the top of the World Trade Center because that was the better option…are you human? Why would God allow such an enormous amount of loss? You could also get into the prosperity gospel easy when those who survive say they are blessed. Okay were the employees of Cantor Fitzgerald not blessed? After all 100% of those who showed up for work at the World Trade Center that Tuesday morning were killed. For me when I think of the death, loss and more I am left to ask the question why did a loving God allow such an event to happen? Nearly 20 years after the September 11 attacks and the issue still haunts me. What does that mean for those who survived..by chance, luck or more. Think of the employee who was counseled by his boss about being late, and then they were late on that morning and lived while those who were killed showed up on time and early for another day of work.
For me personally the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks capture the problem of evil perfectly. The innocent people killed at their desks and places of work. A death toll by several thousand. Think of the people trapped in the commercial airlines over New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. What was going through their minds as they were speeding to their death? The lucky ones were the ones who didn’t know what hit them or killed them quickly . Those trapped knowing that they were going to their death that is psychologically terrifying. And stop and consider all this evil was caused by religion. Yes it was not Christian but a radical form of Sunni Islam, but still it was religion that caused all this death and carnage. I would suggest that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks could show the limits of God and his sovereignty. Any large event of such suffering can do that though.
The Problem of Evil in the Context of Sandy Hook and School Shootings
The first school shooting that jarred me happened when I was in middle school in Fresno, California. North of Fresno in Stockton a drifter with mental illness went to a school yard at gunned down 5 kids and injured 32 others in January of 1989. That was jarring and hard to wrap my mind around as a younger person. What I didn’t know is that there would be many more school and other shootings that would be more shocking to process. Stockton schoolyard shooting was horrific but a decade later you would have Columbine which was far more disturbing. Two people who planned murder and hunted down people inside a high school. The stories of people who teased and mocked before their killing them is exceptionally disturbing.
Each school shooting leaves a punch and makes you feel sick. The one that was overwhelming for me was the Sandy Hook shooting on December 14, 2012. The fact that a gunman would break into an elementary school and methodically target so many people so young is horrifying. Some of the children were gunned down as they hid. In total 20 children were killed. The Sandy Hook shooting for me captures the problem of evil well. Consider the age of the children and the setting that it took place. Consider how evil barged in and what the children were doing previously? From art lessons or storytelling to then dealing with death. The horror of the event is stunning and its hard to describe it in words. It doesn’t get easier with time it stays difficult. Then consider how much harder is it to wrestle with that issue if you are a survivor of such an event and you were touched by it. Think of the dreams that were dashed. Those parents who won’t see their child grow up, graduate, have kids, develop a career and more. Its an event that keeps dragging on. And the pain from it can deepen and become more intense in time. In March of 2019 one of the parents of the Sandy Hook children who died in 2012 committed suicide. You can read about that here.
But for me the Sandy Hook shooting captures the problem of evil well. Where was God in the midst of the carnage? If God makes people who are fearfully and wonderfully made as it says in the 139 Psalm then why allow 7 year olds to be brutally killed? These were just children and educators as well. That is what I can’t figure out. The moral capacity for someone to inflict so much pain on another person is staggering. What type of individual can methodically target people who were so young? For all that I wrote about September 11, 2001 that tragedy makes more sense than Sandy Hook. That happened from a sect of radical Sunni Islam. The Pentagon makes sense as a target. The World Trade Center represented our financial wealth. An elementary school in a small town is about a 180 when you think of it. And in situations like Newtown the absence of an all powerful God speaks loud. That is how I wrestle with this when I think of it. If events like Newtown don’t make you question God then I must ask, are you human?
A Faith Crisis Taught Me Why the Problem of Evil is Overwhelming
From 2009 until 2013 I went through a prolonged and dark faith crisis. The issues I wrestled with were ones that I never gave much thought about personally beforehand. But the problem of evil was the largest issue that hit me hard. I wrote about all the doubts I had and the problem of evil in a post five years ago. You can read that in, “The Doubts which Overtook Me, and the Problem of Evil which Drove me from Christianity…” Even though I have a “working” answer for myself to the problem of evil I have to be honest that I struggle with it. Then something like the Wal Mart and Dayton, Ohio shootings happen and I feel sick to my stomach and my first question is why? Why does a loving God allow this? Many Evangelical Christians don’t discuss the problem of evil. Good luck walking into a church and sitting down with a pastor and trying to discuss this problem. Then there are extenuating circumstances as well which also affect the discussion. For example in the United States there has been a resurgence of Neo or New Calvinists. The sovereignty that Calvinists teach make the problem of evil worse. All I have to do is reference John Piper and his teachings. I wrote about this three years ago in, “How Reformed Theology/Neo-Calvinism Make the Problem of Evil Worse: John Piper, Adam Lanza and a Massacre in Connecticut.” So as you can see by the constant writing of this topic over the years this is a problem I still struggle with.
Why the Problem of Evil is the Best Reason to Reject God
There are many doubts and theological problems that exist. Let me list some of them to make my case. Evangelical Christians talk about how you need to profess faith in Jesus in order to get to heaven. And while I can acknowledge how that can drive missionary work the question must be asked what about those who never heard the Gospel? Are you going to tell me that someone who didn’t hear Jesus’ message who lived in South America, Russia or elsewhere in 100 B.C. is going to hell because they didn’t profess faith? Why should they be held accountable for something that they did not know or was taught? That is a good question, here is another. Why won’t God heal an amputee? When it comes to healing people both in the Bible and long afterward there is not a single account of God healing an amputee. Why is that? Old Testament genocide is another topic as well which can be vexing. What about prayer? What about when God is silent? This is personal for me after the death’s and burial of my parents. I struggle with prayer and often don’t except when asked. But when my parents illnesses were playing out in the hospital I used to lie on the chapel floor and plead with God for another 5 years with my Mom. That didn’t happen and watching my Dad gasp for breath in a hospital room at 3:30 in the morning was equally as hard. So there are a lot of doubts and hard questions that exist.
However in my estimation if a person is going to reject God and walk away from faith I think the best reason to do so is the problem of evil. The problem of evil can show that God is not as good and that his creation is flawed. It shows that God is not the perfect moral being he claims to be. No other issue in my view can challenge the faith or belief of God then this topic. Natural evil is not as bad as moral evil in my view. What is natural evil? Its natural events like the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, Hurricanes Maria, Andrew, or Sandy. Its also events like floods and tornadoes and volcanic eruptions. Moral evil is everywhere. I remember one time reading in the Washington Post about someone with mental health issues in Baltimore who killed and then cannibalized part of his roommate. I felt sick about that. And while the problem of evil exists with murder, drunk drivers, child sexual abuse, war, and more the events like September 11, 2001 attacks or horrific mass shootings like Sandy Hook I can’t explain. The truth is against those events I can’t defend God and feel like I have to defend him. This is a topic that is hard. But if I ever fully reject God I will say this here it will be because of the problem of evil. That is the issue that is a massive problem and remains one still.