Does Questioning God’s Goodness Lead to Atheism? A Response to Comedian Aries Spears

Brandon Cleaver reflects on comedian Aries Spears’ comments on the Tammi Mac Late Show– “Why Black People SHOULD Question God & More”–as well as God’s role amidst suffering.

Comedy is inextricably linked to truth.

While there is always an element of subjectivity woven into a comedic sketch, grounded in the personality and experiences of the comic, the thin webs of truth are what captures the audience member’s attention. It’s what captured my attention.

Recently, comedian Aries Spears appeared for an interview on the Fox Soul TV show, The Tammi Mac Late Show.[1] While the dialogue was laced with his usual humorous overtones, Spears also reflected on a sobering metaphysical issue he is facing. "I've always been in a struggle with religion and God,” he said. “I think I'm this close, if I'm not already there, to being a black atheist."

Black atheist. Within the black community, those two words are historically taboo. Fully aware of this tension, Spears jokingly recalled a line by the late comedian Richard Pryor, “We [black people are] tight with God.” His observation supports recent empirical evidence from the Pew Research Center.[2] As the study shows, 79 percent of African Americans self-identify as Christians and 75 percent say religion is very important. These numbers outpace other ethnicities within the United States. Though the number of non-believing African Americans is slightly growing, generally speaking, African Americans are religious.

Nevertheless, for Spears, the painful reality of suffering juxtaposed with the notion of an all-good God has almost completely tipped the scales in favor of atheism. Spears is far from alone, of course. The mystery of God’s goodness in a world replete with suffering is one of humanity’s great and abiding questions. Spears spells this question out in powerful and emotional terms:

“I just don't understand how we as a people, historically, put so much faith into this thing called God but yet for 400 years we were in chains, for 400 years we prayed, for 400 years . . . Black people have a saying in church. [The pastor says] God is good, [and the church replies] all the time. 400 years . . . All the time? The ‘60s . . . All the time? The four black girls that died in the church bombing in Alabama . . . All the time? The nine black people shot by Dylann Roof in church praising God . . . If God and the angels can't protect you in His house . . . All the time?”

The mystery of God’s goodness in a world replete with suffering is one of humanity’s great and abiding questions.

One cannot help but feel the pain in the barrage of Spears’ rhetorical questions. A few days removed from that clip of Spears, I had a similar reaction when reading the words of Los Angeles Laker’s General Manager Rob Pelinka as he agonizingly described the death of his “best friend” Kobe Bryant and “goddaughter,” Gianna Bryant, as “. . . an amputation of part of my soul.” To borrow the line from Spears, is God good all the time?

I Understand, Brother

Growing up as a young African American male in Detroit, Michigan, my family often visited the International Afro-American Museum. In the late ‘90s, it was renamed the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The museum was unique in that it showcased the rich cultural history of African Americans, starting in Africa and finishing in modern times. But there was always one part of the exhibit that bothered me. One part, in fact, that haunted me.

As I walked through the museum, I came upon the transatlantic part of the historical journey. This, of course, referred to the pre-Civil War institution that led to millions of Africans being enslaved and imported to the Americas like livestock. Families devastated. Cultures obscured. This was not simply informational, though. This exhibit was visceral in every sense of the word. There was a makeshift slave ships’ inner recesses, dimly lit in its visage, and replete with mannequins of tightly packed, shackled Africans. Gingerly walking through this dark corridor, I was immersed in the faux sounds of waves crashing against the ship and enslaved Africans moaning and crying out. Haunting. Just thinking about it nearly brings me tears again.

Now, these historic realities were not new to me. My mom ensured that my sister and I were constantly learning about all facets of our African American history, including the difficult parts. But this visual representation of my people’s suffering still haunts me to this very moment. Spears is certainly within his right to ask, “is God good all the time?”

The God-less Answer

Spears isn’t alone in questioning the tension between the goodness of God and the painful reality of suffering. Unfortunately, the presence of evil has greatly impacted many lives and caused immeasurable, ongoing trauma. For example, January 27 marked the International Holocaust Remembrance Day,[3] a day designated in observance of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most infamous Holocaust camps.

A speck of the immense damage of this horrific event was fictionalized in the award-winning movie, The Quarrel. This film is primarily a dialogue between two Holocaust survivors, formerly childhood Jewish friends, whose spiritual outlooks have become polar opposites. Following their liberation from the Holocaust, Chaim Kovler became a skeptical journalist, while Hersh Rasseyner became more entrenched in his religious beliefs. During one of their discussions Chaim proclaims, “God abandoned us, no, He humiliated us. It was humiliation. Six million of his chosen people. One million children!” Was God good then?

Before we take a closer look at this question it’s important that we recognize its assumption. When questioning the goodness of God, one necessarily adopts an assumption that an objective standard of so-called “goodness” exists. Otherwise, there would be no real independent measure to adjudicate said goodness. However, this begs the question as to the origin of this standard. In other words, as Ravi Zacharias has said, if there’s a moral law, it would seem to follow that there’s a moral law-giver.

From this standpoint, we can see that locating an objective standard in an atheistic framework is highly problematic. Humans are merely the result of a random spattering of molecules which, by happen-chance, eventually resulted in our current physical states. There was no mindful intention. No conscious guidance. Only the handiwork of chance. How does objective morality enter into this chaotic mix?

In atheism, one must devise one’s own standard of morality. While that may initially seem like a liberating and plausible proposition, its practical realization is highly suspect at best, downright unlivable at worst. No one lives as though morality is subjective, or simply determined by each subject (person). This would result in a confused and incoherent outcome, because who then determines whose standard is the right one? Certainly not the person with the most power—that would not make their morality inherently correct. It only means they have the necessary strength to force acceptance. Certainly not the amount of people who agree with the current status quo or political standard. Nazi Germany or the antebellum South are just two examples of the fallaciousness of that argument. As you see, problems abound when there is no objective source of morality.

But it turns out that non-belief in God brings an inescapably self-nullifying dimension to our moral objections. Ironically, Spears must assume objective morality in order to call its source (God) into question. He is essentially saying that God cannot be good and allow all the suffering we experience. Yet the adoption of a non-theistic worldview would only serve to invalidate this angst against God that is pushing him to consider atheism.

Problems abound when there is no objective source of morality.

It is not difficult to see the impossibility of maintaining a worldview that is inherently bereft of objective morality, and consequently, devoid of a moral law-giver. When we take a closer look, we see that such worldviews are actually on borrowed credit from Christianity. This exercise is a form of worldview or religious appropriation, which involves taking features of a worldview or religious tradition and claiming them outside of it. In this case, removing God while asserting objective morality is a clear example, as well as a self-refuting enterprise.

Oxford biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins understands the reality of a godless universe. He provided a sobering, yet consistent peek into the ramifications of an atheistic worldview:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won't find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. ...DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”[4]

God, Goodness, and Suffering

The original indictment against the existence of God concerned Spears’ inquiries into how God could be perpetually good, yet allow such vast amounts of evil. Philosophers have pondered and probed this question for centuries, so an exhaustive treatment cannot be reasonably provided in one section of one article, but perhaps a few thoughts would be helpful to consider.

Our conception of “goodness,” as previously mentioned, necessarily entails an objective standard. That standard is God. It is not that things are good because God says they are, or that there is some force outside God determining what is good. This idea was communicated centuries ago in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, during a conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro. Nevertheless, goodness is a virtue that pours forth from the very essence of God. It is his innate nature. That is why He is the objective standard.[5]

Our conception of “goodness,” as previously mentioned, necessarily entails an objective standard.

But this only further complicates the question of suffering. For if God is (literally) good, then why would He allow people to suffer? Within the Christian worldview, love is the highest moral ethic. We find an example of this when the New Testament writer Paul lists several universally regarded virtues, then identifies the most essential one: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). Love serves as the anchor of our relationships with other human beings and with God.

Yet love is undermined by coercion. To alleviate suffering God would have to force people to do his good and perfect will (Rom. 12:2). We would no longer be people with free will, having the choice to do good or evil. Instead, we would be robots, or beings living in an insensible world. The Christian author C.S. Lewis helps us to see the dimensions of such a world:

“We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free-will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void …Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”[6]

God did not create us to control us; He created us to glorify his name and to enjoy an eternal relationship with Him.

Even with this refutation of any inconsistency with an all-good God and the existence of suffering, the question of God’s unending goodness in face of so much darkness still retains its emotional weightiness. Listening to the clip of Spears, watching his passionate expressions, it is not a leap to assume his question was really an emotional one, hidden beneath the veil of logic.

The God Who Cares

I don’t know. Those three words are often hard for us to utter. Perhaps it is because they create a sense of inadequacy. Yet those are precisely the words I start with to answer the emotional problem of suffering and evil. I don’t know why God allowed hundreds of years of pre-Civil War slavery. I don’t know why He allowed those four black girls[7] to die in a church bombing back in 1963. I don’t know why God allowed Dylann Roof to kill nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after they graciously allowed him in during their Bible study. I simply do not know.

But the lack of a definite answer does not mean we are totally devoid of an answer. Despite understanding how suffering can occur in a world where people have the free will to choose right or wrong actions, the why, though we desire to know, does not negate God’s existence. It would be foolish of me to think that a finite, limited being such as myself would have all the answers to why God allowed instances of evil to occur. Likewise, it would also be presumptuous to assume God would tell me why He allowed a specific evil to happen, or to expect some comprehensive understanding of God’s vast mind.

Yet the unique aspect of Christianity is not the how or why, but the what. What did God do about it? God cared.

Love's as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
seeing (with all that is)
Our cross, and His.[8]

God didn’t send just any solution, He sent his Son. Jesus Christ came to live among us, suffer like us, suffer with us, and ultimately die for us on a Roman cross. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). This love is what Jesus gave us in his sacrifice. Though suffering and evil are part of a broken, sin-filled world, his sacrifice ensured that we have an opportunity to one day live in everlasting fellowship with him in a world where sickness and death will not reside.

This does not mean God does not care about the pains of this world. Jesus talked about the hypocrisy of those who claim to be his followers, but failed to provide food and clothes for the hungry;[9] he healed people of sickness; he restored sight to the blind. Jesus’ life and teachings clearly showed a concern and compassion for the travails of this world, while also displaying everyone’s most important need, to trust in him.

I understand that answer may not provide total contentment. Tears, confusion, disappointment, even anger will persist. God welcomes all of our emotions. But the frustration must not be totally rooted in our feelings, we must also ask the question that pricks at our minds: Is it true?

Through Negro spirituals and insights captured within the enslaved antebellum African narratives one can see how they were intelligent enough to discern truth from a lie. The four girls in the church bombing, though young, were learning truth. The nine church members killed by the white supremacist Roof were studying and learning about truth. In each instance there was a recognition and acceptance that Jesus was exactly who he claimed to be: the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Perhaps many of them read some of Jesus’ more painful words, too. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Pain is a persistent reality of this world, yet peace in the midst of pain is something only Jesus offers.

God has always been good and will always be good. He invites you to experience his goodness, even in the midst of suffering. His promise is twofold: To be present in your current predicament, and the hope of eternal life with Him and other believers, devoid of pain. Atheism implies that no ultimate justice will occur, one can live a life of utter immorality, die, and that’s it. That does not solve the problem. Yet in Christianity, the cross represents just how serious God takes justice, and his love and his goodness was on full display through the gracious sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

“For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Ps. 100:5)”

[1] Fox Soul. “Aries Spears Explains Why Black People SHOULD Question God & More - The Tammi Mac Late Show.” YouTube video, 15:36. February 6, 2020.

[2] Pew Research Center: 5 facts about the religious lives of African Americans

[3] This day was designated by the United Nations to urge “every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.” International Holocaust Remembrance Day

[4] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.

[5] Here is a more comprehensive treatment of this idea.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2002), 382.

[7] Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11).

[8] C. S. Lewis, “Love’s as Warm as Tears”

[9] Matt. 25:35-36

Find more thoughtful content on these topics in RZIM Answers.

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To learn more about #Jude3Project, visit their website. Have questions about slavery in the Bible? Brandon Cleaver addresses them in this article.

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