Compassionate Atheism, Or, Insanity Justified

How can I believe in a God? How can I believe in a God that allows the world to exist as it does? Take a look around. Every two minutes, someone is raped. What is this?!? Who is doing this? How can this man exist who so violently hates women, or hates God, or hates himself, or something, that he would do such a thing? How can thousands, millions of these men exist? Do I know someone who has done this? The chances are not small.

How can I believe in a God? A God who allows children to starve to deathTo starve to death. I have never once, in my entire life, my entire life, missed a single meal because I could not obtain it. Not once, ever. How can I even imagine the pain of slowly wasting away because of lack of nourishment? Who am I to even pretend to care? How can this happen? To children! To 17,000 children every day! God, with tears and cursing, where are you?

How can I believe in a God? A God who stood by while history unfolded. Look at the world now and witness its endless brokenness. But I’m told that this is the greatest time in history to live. How many, oh God who claims to love, how many human beings have lived and died and suffered the whole way through? How many struggled and struggled, and died and were forgotten, forever. How many?

How can I believe in a God? A God who allows His Creation to destroy itself. Who allows the ones He loves to despair of life so profoundly that they would rather choose to end themselves than continue living in their perceived Hell? A God who created a world in which suicide is the second highest cause of death among the young in America? What is this, God? What is this?!?

Or even just the personal things. How can I believe in a God who made my health so sensitive? How can I believe in a God who gave me a miscarriage? Who let my friend drift into the wrong crowd? Who made it so hard but so important to be a good communicator? Who made people so petty? Who gave me a family that feels impossible to not abandon, not to mention actively love? A God who allows my plans to go awry? If you are there, why aren’t things just easy? Even just picking what movie to watch can cause a rift in a friendship for a little while.

How can I believe in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, when the world is so lost. I hear you. I really do. But, consider. With your framework, what is all this suffering? Is it not wild and meaningless and unredeemable? Is not the foundation of the world pain? Do we not live in an eternal Guernica? Yes, there are joys here and there, but what are those small, personal joys compared to the soul-ripping atrocities committed against and by fellow human beings?

You and I see other people who live in an abyss of grief and weeping, then their weeping overwhelms and cuts us, it cuts us down because it is deep. But we don’t wallow. Compassion and pity move us to act. We are driven to see this great evil ended, once and for all. We decide that the world will be happy. We will remove the evil and build the Good, because this life is all we’ve got and God isn’t there to do it for us. If we don’t help other people, we are the height of selfishness. And I am with you in this response.1

But there is a problem. The more you try to heal the world, the more you come to realize how profoundly uninfluential you really are. No matter what you do, humanity’s vomiting, bleeding, shrieking messes remain. Your compassion allows you to feel the woes of the world, and the woes call to you, screaming, “Help me, help me!” Your compassion can hear them but you cannot answer them all. You know you cannot answer them all, so you try to answer just a few. But that doesn’t help, your compassion burns too brightly for the unanswered calls. There are just too many still, and your successes are pointless until all suffering ends. In fact, even the little successes you gain are rarely what you had in mind. You feel like your heart has hooks in it, stretching, stretching it until it is torn to pieces, because of your compassion. And there is no reason to stop feeling this. In fact, you ought to feel it. When you are not feeling it, you are merely forgetting. Even further, this does not even discuss the discovery that you yourself are far more a part of the problems than you realize. Your compassion, then, cannot be satisfied.

So you see, an atheism that does not abandon compassion becomes endless pain and despair. You want the world to happy but it refuses to be. You have three options: stop the effects of compassion by becoming blind, stop the effects of compassion by becoming unfeeling, or be driven insane. If you doubt me, show me with your life. Go into the broken places and heal them. Make a difference. I don’t mean a small difference to assuage your self-righteousness; fix the world and never be satisfied until everyone lives a life of joy. For example, what are you doing reading this and not helping those in need? What I’m saying is, unless you live by compassion, I don’t want to hear you talk about it.2

And this dilemma is not the vague ramblings of an extremist, it has a precedent in history. The moment before Nietzsche lost his mind, he ran to the side of a horse who was being beaten, wrapped his arms around it to protect it and cried, “I understand you!” He then collapsed to the ground, his great mind destroyed.3 Allen Ginsberg tells us this well in his famous poem. It can be seen in university students being reduced to obscenities and tears over the smallest slights. Don Quixote would agree with a conviction that comes from experience. The danger of insanity is not imaginary.

Now. If, somehow, God is there, a relief can spread forth from our deepest parts, because that is where the Holy Spirit resides. A relief and reassurance that washes us and makes us laugh! Jesus died for the world and lived again, and in living He has redeemed it already. How can this be, when it is so broken? I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone knows. But I do know that while our life is but a whisper and hope can feel lost, God is truly there, loving us, and He is sovereign. And so, in the face of the world, we smile.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. … For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. … And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Romans 8

This is the sweetness of the Christian answer. In a verse, it is, “Be still, and know that I am God.” It is the only complete answer to the facts of the world. It is the only informed foundation for hope, and love, and peace, and patience, and trust, and calm, and indeed sanity. When confronted with reality, in all its diverse evils and triumphs and sorrows and joys, we must decide what is true. Is hope or despair, True? God sent His Son, so Hope is True. Hope is beautifully affirmed because Jesus lived, and He died for our sins, and was raised again in power, and adopted us into His family, building the Church into a reality. And this reality will outlive the Holocaust, it will outlive the wave of unbelief, it will outlive North Korea, it will outlive Donald Trump and America. And one day, one glorious day, the world will be made new, and lovely, and simple. And joy will reign without opposition. This is the Christian answer, and it is sweet indeed.

Finally, we Christians must not use this as an excuse to remove ourselves from the world and abandon it to its own evils. God is sovereign and ultimately in control, but He has chosen us, the Church, to be His body here on earth. Therefore we have the privilege and joy, and yes, duty, to participate in the redeeming of the world. In small ways, we make the world more like Heaven and less like Hell. We imitate Christ’s healing. Even every once in a blue moon, a major evil is defeated for a little while. What a gift from God.

  1. That is, everything except, “… this life is all we’ve got and God isn’t there to do it for us.” 
  2. Am I saying that I live by compassion, so I have authority to talk about it? Well, I try to, but I certainly don’t live perfectly, ask anyone. So maybe I should shut up about it, I dunno. But the point is, the problem of evil is powerful because it draws from our compassion. So, if you don’t have compassion yourself, then don’t use the problem of evil. It is kind of arrogant to demand that God heals the world if you yourself are not bothering to heal the world. It is still a powerful argument, mind you, but I don’t respect the arguer who uses compassion to attack me and does not use it to spur himself towards action. 
  3. I know, I know, Nietzsche had a disease. His insanity may have been unrelated to his philosophy. I submit to that criticism. But I guess the story is just so powerful that I want to appropriate it anyway. You may say, “Oh Christians and their twisting of history…” Sigh, you may be right. But whatever. 

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