My wife and I were heading to a pub to meet some friends. Kate was bringing her acquaintance Bill, a self-proclaimed atheist. Her goal was to stage a debate, and I was all for it. I was on fire for my faith and wanted to show it off. I wouldn’t have admitted that at the time, but looking back that’s all it was.
I called my friend Brad before the meet-up, excited about the smack-down we could give here. I actually knew Bill, and I admitted he got under my skin. I knew the typical questions he would ask, so I said to Brad, “Glib questions about God, no matter how big, should be answered with glib answers. Non-believers think they can explain away God by cornering people with supposedly big questions that are so easy to answer with quick responses, and only someone who is sincerely interested would want a complex answer anyway. So I’m going to be as snarky as the person asking them.”
Brad said, “Sure man. Be you. I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Why Do You Believe in God?
I suppose I was known for being snarky anyway (a product of years spent taking the brunt of jokes and diatribes directed toward Catholics), so he probably wasn’t surprised by my comments. When we got to the pub, after some small talk Bill asked, “Why do you believe in God?”
I said, “Because he believes in me.”
“Cute,” said Kate, who had had several theological conversations with me and knew me well. “I guess this is going to be nothing but a duel of superficial screeds. You guys can do better than that.”
Before I could say, “Wow, no fooling you, Kate,” Bill answered, “No, no. I can take him for his word. OK, if God exists, why does evil exist?”
“Evil doesn’t exist,” I answered. “It’s just the lack of something good.”
We went back and forth.
“Clearly evil does exist,” he said.
“Does it? Do you believe existence is a good thing?”
Good and Evil
“Then how can a good thing be evil at the same time?”
“Fine then. No, existence isn’t good.”
“Oh, I see. Morality is so trivial to you that you think you could just switch positions like that and it will have no bearing on your core argument. OK. Good thing there’s an easy answer for both beliefs. If existence is not good, then where does our concern for good come from?”
“Where else is there? Wherever somewhere else is has to be part of existence.”
“It comes from our brains, our desire for some ideal that’s never realized,” Bill answered a bit confused by the question. “I don’t know. I’ll admit I got caught up in your black and white idea of good and evil. But really, we all know existence is a mix of good and evil.”
“But again, how can something be two opposites at the same time? Something is either beautiful or ugly, just or unjust, peaceful or violent. But existence can be both good and evil?”
“Parts of existence can be good and other parts could be evil.”
“But we’re not talking about parts of existence. We’re talking about existence itself. Is it good or evil?”
“It could still be both. Certain aspects of existence can be considered good to some people and evil to others. Just as something can be considered beautiful to one person but ugly to someone else, fair to one person but unfair to another, and so on.”
“No, not really. Beauty and justice are objective realities, just like goodness. But let’s just for a moment presume that you’re right and that something can be good to one person but evil to another person. If that’s the case, the only way both those people could be right is if their ideas concerning good and evil simply floated around in their heads where those ideas could not interfere with ideas about good and evil that contradicted their own. If we’re saying ideas exist, then I suppose we can say evil exists, but then so do the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
“So you see good and evil as black and white. How can you expect other people to accept and live by this stark idea of morality?”
“Are you saying it isn’t good for me to do so?”
“Well, yeah, but just because I have a concept of good doesn’t mean existence itself is good. I can see where you’re going with this now. You’re saying existence is good so you can say God must, therefore, exist because God is good.”
“Right. No trick there. He is good, so if goodness exists he must at least exist in that sense. But I’m also saying much more than that. I’m saying existence is good, and therefore existence is God. You know that whole ‘I am that I am’ spiel he gave?”
“Well, you are being rather pretentious to equate something so imperfect as existence to a God you believe is perfect. If God exists, and in fact is existence as you say, why is there evil in the world?
“I just got done explaining … Never mind.”
“Oh, right. Evil doesn’t exist. I forgot. But I’m not buying that. If evil doesn’t exist, why is there so much suffering?”
“Let’s get off the talk on existence because I’m not getting through to you. What you’re in essence asking now is the classic question ‘how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, perfect God allow suffering?’ Am I right?
“And you’re saying it’s more likely that this supposed perfect God doesn’t exist because suffering exists, correct?”
“You can say that.”
“Let me ask you this question then: If God doesn’t exist, why do so many people who suffer feel closer to him in their suffering?”
“That’s just their way of coping with their suffering. So, thank you. You just affirmed what I suspected: religion is just a way for the weak to cope with the hardships of life.”
“You’re right. I am weak and I need a higher power than myself to get through life. What’s wrong with that? Are you claiming you don’t need anything similar?”
“No. I just use things I can see and feel and stuff. Why doesn’t God just reveal himself in a way we can physically witness?
“Because he already did: Jesus.”
“But that was 2,000 years ago. Why doesn’t he reveal himself today?”
“He does, in the Eucharist.”
“But that’s asking quite a lot for someone to believe. Why doesn’t he reveal himself in a way that leaves no doubt in people’s minds?”
“He reveals himself in many other ways we can understand, through the beauty of nature, through the gifts and virtues of other people, through people’s sacrificial love for one another, through the miracle of life. All of these things are evidence of God, and people accept them as such according to their own understandings and comfort levels. If someone cannot acknowledge the existence of something despite so much evidence, the logical conclusion shouldn’t be that the thing in question doesn’t exist, but rather that the person’s vision is poor. Any greater manifestation of God’s glory to such eyes would be more than they could bear. Human eyes can’t even look at the sun, created by God, without it damaging our eyesight; yet we think we can bear his presence in some greater form than what he has already revealed of himself through his creation?”
“Great. Just great,” Brad said. “OK, Dave, now that you got all those wise-guy answers off your chest, your mind treating Bill like a human being? And Bill, really? I feel like I’m just getting out of Professor Carson’s Western philosophy class after he gave one of his lame lectures on Stephen Hawkings’ ‘indisputable’ arguments against God’s existence. I’m gonna get us another drink. Same thing all around?”
“Yeah,” the three of us said.
“All right, but I better not be hearing the same thing when I get back.”
“What’s he talking about? You weren’t offended by anything I said, were you?” I asked Bill.
“No, you were fine…. You didn’t think my arguments were lame, did you?”
“Well … yeah. I did.”
Play the Devil’s Advocate?
“Yeah, I’ve seen you play devil’s advocate much better in the past,” Kate said.
“What do you mean to play devil’s advocate? I think he is the devil’s advocate,” I then said.
Kate and Bill just looked at each other.
“Should I tell him?” Kate asked Bill.
“I was hoping I could fool him for longer, but I guess.”
My forehead wrinkled in confusion.
“Bill writes for several Catholic apologetic magazines. He is also an editor at a major Catholic publishing house and has his own YouTube channel and podcast covering the Faith for millennials.”
“You mean you’ve been playing with me this whole time?”
They slightly nodded in agreement. You could see the redness in my cheeks, I’m sure. I was incredulous.
“But I know you. That time we met at Brad’s party, and you were leading a conversation on the flaws in Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence …. I even remember you challenging the credibility of Scripture.”
Know Both Sides
“One must know both sides well, Dave. I was just honing my ability to present my opponents’ arguments in true Thomistic fashion. Besides, I do think the way most well-meaning Catholics defend the faith is a little … let’s say … elementary. We need to dialogue, challenge each others’ faith, thereby deepening it.”
“But you claimed to be an atheist at that party too.”
“I did? No, no, no. I said I’m a supporter of Nietzche. You must have deduced from that statement that I was an atheist. I still stand by what I said, though. As far as I’m concerned, the god Nieztche described, the one created by human convention, is very dead. I support Nietzche to an extent because his harsh criticisms toward Christianity, I believe, were his attempts to help save it from what it has become.”
“Three more drinks for all,” Brad said as he returned.
“Does anyone else see this as a great opportunity to sharpen our arguments about the Trinity?” Bill asked.
Brad and Kate just rolled their eyes.