Evangelism Challenge: A God Problem by Peter Atterton

(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends, @Interested_in_Philosophy, @Interested_in_Atheism, @Larry_Lacy,

In The New York Times, Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, has an opinion piece titled, “A God Problem.” The subtitle: “The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent.”

You can read the article here:

Dr. Atterton starts his article, as philosophers have been trained to do, by defining his terms.

He writes,

If you look up “God” in a dictionary, the first entry you will find will be something along the lines of “a being believed to be the infinitely perfect, wise and powerful creator and ruler of the universe.” Certainly, if applied to non-Western contexts, the definition would be puzzling, but in a Western context this is how philosophers have traditionally understood “God.” In fact, this conception of God is sometimes known as the “God of the Philosophers.”

He then raises the central theme of his essay:

As a philosopher myself, I’d like to focus on a specific question: Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?

Let’s consider his arguments in turn.


Professor Atterton first examines the concept of ‘all-powerful’ (also called ‘omnipotence’).

The first argument he considers is ‘the paradox of the stone’:

Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.

Dr. Atterton recognizes that this argument only works against a clumsy definition of omnipotence. Christian philosophers have worked out much more careful understandings of God’s attributes. Dr. Atterton acknowledges the response, from Aquinas: “God cannot do self-contradictory things… God can only do that which is logically possible.”

The second argument he considers is a variation on the paradox of the stone: can God create a world in which evil does not exist? Atterton points to Alvin Plantinga’s work. Atterton says, “the standard defense is that evil is necessary for free will.”

However, this is a slight misrepresentation; the “standard defense” is actually that free will is necessary for moral good and for love, and therefore, evil must be a possibility. However, the moral good of free persons, and of the love they choose, is greater than the evil they do.

Dr. Atterton then asserts that this explanation does not address (a) animal suffering or (b) physical evil.

He does not provide any indication that Christian philosophers have addressed these objections.


In this section, Dr. Atterton approvingly draws from Michael Martin, who argued,

if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

Dr. Atterton adds to the examples of lust and envy by discussing the problem of God knowing what malice is like. The conclusion? “God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.”

While the space in any newspaper’s op-ed column is always quite tight, it is surprising to see how quickly he sweeps away the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The reason is that this idea has “its own formidable difficulties”:

Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?

Finally, the piece concludes by citing Pascal. According to Dr. Atterton, these kinds of logical inconsistencies led him to “reject reason as a basis for faith and return to the Bible and revelation.”

Analysis and Discussion

As Dr. Atterton is a fellow image-bearer of God, it is of the utmost importance that we treat him with kindness and respect. Further, he has earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a professor at San Diego State University. We also need to respect that he had a very limited amount of space to make his case. So I do hope we will be quite careful and gentle in responding to how he has presented his argument that the very idea of God is incoherent in The New York Times.

That said, the piece is published as a starting point for serious thought.

How would you respond to his arguments?

  1. Can Christians offer a logically coherent explanation of animal pain?
  2. Can Christians offer a logically coherent explanation of physical suffering (“natural evil”)?
  3. Can God know everything, including the human experience of lust, envy, and malice, and does he thereby lose his moral perfection, or does he not know these experiences, and therefore is not omniscient?
  4. Is the Incarnation also logically incoherent?
    a. Was Christ really and fully human?
    b. Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil?
    c. Can God die?

I look forward to your respectful, substantive engagement with this essay!

(Tony Mercurio) #2

Let me start with one of your questions, for now :wink:

My first impression here is that we ought to do some thinking about the phrase “natural evil.” While we could try to parse this out by doing original language and concordance studies on what constitutes “evil,” I’m going to suggest ex ante that we distinguish between “perpetrated evil” and “inherited evil.”

I believe that although God decrees evil as a temporary by-product of what Ravi has called “semi-transcendent” choice, he never desires evil, nor does he cause it in an other-than-sovereign kind of way. In Jeremiah 7:31, we read of God pronouncing judgment on the “children of Judah” for their “abominations,” which included “burn[ing] their sons and their daughters in the fire.”

The LORD goes on to say that he did not command this evil, nor did it “come into [his] heart.” Thus, God is not a perpetrator of evil. I understand that some Reformed brothers and sisters might disagree with me here in nuance, but may we pray and think together to answer worldly questions in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now, separately, I think we can all agree on the premise that man, that humankind is indeed a perpetrator of evil. I don’t have the reference, but I remember hearing Lewis had suggested that were we to continue to live on this earth forever, each unregenerate person would become the most loathsome, detestable human being imaginable. In short, without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and given enough time, we’d all become Hitlers… and worse, to be sure.

I tend to accept this line of thinking, but even if you don’t, perhaps you would admit that we don’t often have to look beyond ourselves to recognize a heart of evil. Certainly, let us also assume from the biblical record that Satan and his kingdom are in the very least influencers of evil in this world as well.

So, evil is “perpetrated” by one created being in violation of, and against another created being. Perry robs Peter to pay Paul. Sally sells seashells she stole from the beach store by the seashore. “Florida man killed in-laws, ordered pizza, police say.” Sorry, couldn’t resist.

We often call this kind of evil “moral evil.” Finally though, the question arises regarding what has been called “natural or physical evil,” or simply natural disasters. We could then ask the question, “does God control the weather?” I think so. You might follow up with further inquiry by asking why God would choose to cause harm in this way (that is our topic here, after all)…

One could even suggest (as I believe Dr. Atterton does) that God herefore perpetrates evil. But I think this is a great mistake. It is from the biblical account of the fall of man that we understand death came into the world by sin. I do not believe there were hurricanes in Eden. Knowing that “just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12), I recommend that if we want to call natural disasters evil, we refer to the category as “inherited evil.”

Why did God specifically introduce these kinds of disasters into the world? I don’t know, but I know him, and I trust according to knowledge revealed that all of his purposes work to satisfy the tension that is the antinomy of love and justice.

In fact, we can go far beyond natural disasters and point directly to Old Testament occurrences where God commands the utter destruction of people groups. Truly this is another puzzle for skeptics. Remember though, that God is not a perpetrator of evil. He is, however, an avenger of wrath upon evil and thereby a faithful executor of justice.

We must never charge either category of evil to God’s account. On the one hand, despite not understanding the mechanisms or the ways of God, we brought destruction upon ourselves. And, on the other hand, when God does cause harm, it’s not evil at all, but one of four things:

  1. A temporary infliction of pain for unbelievers to cause them to know that the LORD is God and bring them to repentance;
  2. Chastisement for believers to a similar end;
  3. Suffering of both the just and the unjust to produce the greater works and purposes of God (often unbeknownst to us - think Job), or;
  4. A final execution of wrath upon those who rejected Christ’s sacrifice, in order that justice be served.

I could go on to list many NT passages that teach us to value suffering as a means for our ultimate benefit. For anyone who hasn’t read it yet, @Vince_Vitale offers a variety of answers to this and similar questions in his book “Why Suffering” that he co-wrote with Ravi.

The bottom line is that our faith is a faith of faith. Tozer said this:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. … Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.

The revealed will and knowledge of God is given both through the Holy Scriptures and by the Holy Spirit. To know Christ is to trust him. There is no shortcut in our upward relationship. For believers, may we endeavor to know Christ more until the day comes when we know as we are known.

For skeptics and believers alike, I offer Paul’s conclusion in Romans 5: “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (18).

(SeanO) #3

@CarsonWeitnauer Since @tony_mercurio tackled (2), I’ll tackle question (3) - can God be omniscient without Himself being sinful?

I had never heard of this objection before, but I do not find it a strong one.


  • a good man can understand the motivations of an evil man without himself being evil
  • a good man in fact chooses goodness not because he does not understand evil, but because he does understand evil and recognizes its consequences
  • a wise man understands a fool, but does not behave like him
  • God knows the hearts of all men, so He knows the thoughts of evil men without Himself being evil
  • to say that God must have experiential done evil to be omniscient is a nonsense assertion in the same way that saying ‘God cannot make a rock He cannot lift’ is a nonsense statement - it violates the character / attributes of God and is ultimately not meaningful

So, in essence, God does not have to have experienced a life of evil to understand it. A righteous man can see both good and evil, but an evil man is living a lie and therefore cannot understand goodness. That is the nature of evil - it is a distortion - a lie - which clouds understanding.

In fact, the Bible describes God as light - why? Light in the darkness - it brings clarity - sight - truth. Those who do evil walk in the darkness - they do not see, nor do they understand.

Proverbs 23:5 - Evildoers do not understand what is right, but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.” C. S. Lewis

You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness. You can do a kind of action when you are not feeling kind and when it gives you no pleasure, simply because kindness is right; but no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong—only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him. In other words badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness . And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. We called sadism a sexual perversion; but you must first have the idea of a normal sexuality before you can talk of its being perverted; and you can see which is the perversion, because you can explain the perverted from the normal, and cannot explain the normal from the perverted…

And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel? That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite , not the original thing. C. S. Lewis

(Anthony Costello ) #4

I read the article, and while I think he does bring up some of the main contentions against classical theism, we know (as habitual apologists and theologians) that there are already good responses to each of his contentions. Not perfect response, mind you, just reasonable ones.

That raises a question in my mind of whether this is more a battle of how we go about receiving and giving good information, accurate data, and how we measure information and data against human interpretation. For those of us who do this sort of as a living (or a real serious hobby) articles like this probably don’t pose a serious threat to our faith. We have seen them already, and, as I mentioned, we sort of know the answers. But, what about the average reader? How does the average reader (atheist or Christian), who may not be familiar with atheistic arguments, or even the Christian arguments, know who to believe?

For example, the author does mention Aquinas, Plantinga, and Pascal in the article. Three of the biggest names in the history of philosophy of religion; but will any of the NYT readers who read this article actually go and read Aquinas, Plantinga or Pascal? Likely not. So, the reader will probably fail to engage with these primary sources, and, in failing to read them directly, not experience the full force of their argumentation. I’ve met tons of people who upon reading Aquinas, for example, have just been bowled over by his arguments and the power of his writing. Moreover, not everyone is looking for absolute logical perfection when it comes to God, so to fail to engage with Aquinas or Pascal and their more existential expositions of God is also to miss out on something about God!

Of course the reverse applies to the Christian, will the Christian read the best of the atheistic or naturalist material? I think it depends on what our current projects are; hopefully if we are just doing apologetics we will continually challenge ourselves with the best of the atheist/naturalist literature.

In that sense, I think there is a meta-epistemological question here that we could address: how do readers of this article know whether or not the author is 1) authoritative, 2) presenting the alternative views accurately and fairly (if that is even possible), and 3) not making mistakes in his own analysis of the matter? In fact, an astute reader would probably reasonably doubt, to some degree, each of these points.

I would hope that Christian readers would be in a position to doubt each of these, not absolutely, but again reasonably. So, a good reader could approach this with the attitude: 1) hmm, this author has a PhD in philosophy, but is it in philosophy of religion specifically? What was his dissertation on? Was it on the Problem of Evil, or the Coherency of Theism?, 2) hmm, this author seems to be presenting his views in a non-bias manner, but, we are all human, is he perhaps spinning, intentionally or not, one or more of the arguments in a way that inappropriately favors his conclusion?, and 3) hmm, this author does have a PhD, but we all make errors in analysis and judgment. I know PhD philosophers disagree all the time, about pretty much everything, so why should I accept this author’s arguments over some other PhD author’s arguments for God?

I think that if we can continue to educate our churches to approach the literature in this manner, then 1) there will be less existential crisis when believers encounter pieces like this, 2) believers will be motivated to go find answers on their own, and 3) believers will validate some of what the author is saying, yet without buying into it wholesale.

I’ll say more about some of the content in my next post.

in Christ,

(Stephen Wuest) #5

Alter was a philosopher who spent 50 years thinking about whether or not God existed. He concluded that one could come to the conclusion that he does, but that this “God” that philosophy could affirm, is the God of the philosophers. In other words, there are limitations to the thinking of the human mind, and these limit the kind of God we can think about, given philosophy.

I think that the problem is weirder than we realize. If God is really “other” than a human being, then how can we affirm all these characteristics about him, as we have never experienced being him?

(Joel Vaughn) #6

Just to touch on #3 and #4 a bit… These put me in mind of Jesus’ telling the lawless ones “I never knew you!” Are Gal. 4:9 and 1 Cor. 8:3 speaking of experiential knowledge that is received by invitation? That is, even though God may know everything about us, is knowing us yet something more personal and experiential, for which experience He stands at the door and knocks?
The “knowledge of good and evil” in the garden that humanity came to have as God has (Gen 3:22) seems to be in the sense of Rom 3:20 (and Heb. 5:14). The sense in which Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) seems to be in these sense of experiential knowledge.

(Carson Weitnauer) #7

Hi friends,

I think you’ll be interested to read Cameron McAllister’s analysis of the article: