The New York Times has done it. They did what Christopher Hitchens and the new atheists never could. They did what Nietzsche never could. I’m been checkmated. They have disproved God.
Obviously, I’m being facetious. On Monday, The New York Times published an opinion by Peter Atterton, a philosopher at San Diego State University, entitled “A God Problem.” The subtitle reads “Perfect. All-Powerful All-Knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is not actually coherent.” His argument is that God cannot be simultaneously perfect, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Professor Atterton is not the first person to argue this, nor has he done it particularly eloquently.
Back in October, I wrote an article titled RESPONSE: The Rich White Civil War, in which I dissected another New York Times article about a study on political divisions. I said in that article this format would become a theme. True to form, I have not done it since. But “A God Problem” presents a good opportunity to return to this again.
Atterton begins his argument with the “paradox of the stone”, the question of whether God can create a stone he is unable to lift. If he can’t create the stone, he is not all-powerful, but if he can’t lift the stone, he is also not all-powerful. Note to any atheists reading this, if you are trying to disprove God, don’t use this argument. It’s “how many angels can fit on the head of a needle” for atheists.
This example doesn’t work because it is inherently contradictory. If God is omnipotent, there cannot be a stone he cannot lift, the same way he cannot create a square circle. Atterton mentions this, his only counter argument a reference to Descartes saying otherwise.
He uses the rock paradox as a stepping stone to the question of theodicy – how can an all-powerful and perfect God allow for the existence of evil? Needless to say, he is not the first to ask this question. The book of Job is probably the oldest in Scripture and is entirely centered around this question. Atterton brings up the standard Christian defense that the existence of free will requires a possibly of mankind to use that freedom to do evil. Atterton offers no rebuttal to this, and he moves onto other causes of suffering.
He then poses the question of human suffering not caused by other humans, such as natural disasters or disease. He also questions how God could allow animals, who have not sinned, to suffer. The second point is easier to answer, and we’ll answer it first. It’s an open question of whether animals can actually “suffer.” When you and I suffer, it is with an acute knowledge that this suffering is not the way things ought to be. It requires a certain level of self-awareness which I’m not sure animals possess. Animals might feel pain, but I’m not sure if it fits the definition of suffering.
As for the larger argument, Christian theology holds that mankind’s sin has fundamentally broken creation. Creation does not function as God designed it to. As Romans 8 says, “the whole creation is groaning” under the consequences of sin, waiting to be restored to God. God can still use natural events for his glory, but mankind’s freedom has split creation from right relationship with God. God created mankind in a sort of triangle relationship between himself, creation, and the pinnacle of his creation, us. When mankind sinned, that affected all three sides of that triangle. That might not be a convincing argument for Atterton, but it’s not a logically inconsistent one. Atterton doesn’t present this, though he presents the counterarguments for his other points, which means he is either unfamiliar with this answer, or he’s too lazy to present it.
Atterton’s last argument poses a third contradiction. How could God be all-knowing if he didn’t know sin, and how can he be perfect if he knew sin? “If God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy.” Then he formulates this again. If God knows everything, then he must know everything we know. And mankind derives enjoyment from causing pain to other beings. How can God be perfect if he knows the enjoyment derived from causing pain to others? Therefore God cannot be simultaneously omniscient and morally perfect.
This was an argument I had ever heard before. But as I began to think about it, I realized why. This isn’t a good argument either. On a theological level, I don’t actually believe it is possible for God to sin. Not just that he never has, but God the Father reigning in the fullness of majesty cannot sin, the same way I cannot fly. In addition, for God’s omniscience and perfection to be a contradiction, it presupposes that sin exists outside of God, something I don’t believe either. If God exists, you cannot define sin outside of him.
However, if we grant it is not a contradiction for an omnipotent God to sin, this argument still falls flat. Part of what makes sin sin is that it is a corruption of something good. Lust is a corruption of intimacy. Envy is a perversion of the drive for excellence. God, since he exists in the fullness of these virtues, does not gain anything, in this case, knowledge, by sinning. It would be like choosing to see Avengers: Infinity War in black and white, or skipping the actual movie in favor of an unfinished bootleg copy. In the same way, God, who exists in perfect community, doesn’t need sinful corruptions of community. He already has it in the fullest way possible!
It is possible to make arguments against the existence of God from logic. As a Christian, I obviously don’t find them convincing, but you can do it. However, if you’re looking for pointers, The New York Times‘ “A God Problem” is not the place to start.