The greatest problem or mystery that faces the Christian narrative is the problem of evil. Or, we rather should say that it is the greatest problem that faces any narrative, whether theist or atheist. How one thinks about, articulates, responds, or tries to explain evil in the world is always telling of one’s theology or philosophy in general. Hauntingly, perhaps it is even telling of us as individuals. It is the most sobering and difficult area for any philosophy to contemplate and reflect upon.
The best modern book I have read, to try and address this area, is David Bentley Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea.” Initially the book was written in response to the December 2004 Tsunami in Asia. At one point Hart brings up a poem that Voltaire wrote after the great earthquake that devastated Portugal in 1755 and he contrasts it with Dostoyevsky’s deeper understanding displayed in “The Brothers Karamazov.” He writes:
This is why Ivan’s indignation and anguish have a profundity that Voltaire’s cannot. Voltaire’s poem, again, is no great challenge to Christian faith, because it inveighs against the ethical deist’s God of cosmic balance (and where have his temples been erected?). But Ivan’s rebellion is something altogether different. Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that this history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoyevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were.
He points out the first problem we encounter upon hearing from most Christians when addressing some natural or man-made disaster and that is to try and make it “morally intelligible.” It is hard for us to see that if it were, then we live in a far darker and terrible universe than can be imagined. In fact, maybe such is Hell. Maybe Hell is that place where suffering and death have some “moral” intelligibility.
Hart then addresses the fact that the depth of Dostoyevsky’s criticism, his character’s skepticism, can only come from a place where glimpses of the exact opposite of such evil have been seen. The gravity, the seriousness, the rage even, all pay homage to that God glimpsed but never fully seen. He writes:
Indeed, when this particular strain of skepticism is taken to its greatest possible depth, as it can be only by a mind as intensely Christian as Dostoyevsky’s, one discovers it to be a shadow cast by the light of the gospel, an echo of the spiritual and moral liberty that Christianity proclaims, and even a kind of unwilling confession of “belief” (though not of course faith), inasmuch as it knows of no God other than the Christian God of infinite mercy who merits the effort of active unbelief.
In this sense, every atheist is a witness.