This question comes across the Atlantic via the web from a medically retired Baptist minister whose son is asking this question. Also, his deceased non-believing father could not understand why, if there is a God, a Supreme Being allows so much suffering – specifically his suffering. This Christian minister is struggling not only to answer their questions but his own that stir up doubts as he clings to his faith amidst a disabling disease.
He refers to how we Christians strive to answer questions about God’s seeming inaction in the face of suffering and evil by citing the “free will” argument, but then wonders if it does not “beg the question.” He is well versed on what atheists like Voltaire and Hitchens have argued and wants so much to answer them as well as questioners and doubters. He reaches out for help, closing his heartfelt letter with these words: “Any help would be appreciated.”
What can I say in response to his letter? First, I appreciate his willingness to share his questions and doubts with me, a brother in Christ and the ministry. He wrote to me after having read my article about why God did not create a new heaven and a new earth in the beginning. Like him, I too want to answer questions raised by my loved ones. I believe Christ founded the Church so that we could share with each other not only our faith, hope, and love but also our doubts and questions.
Second, may I say that I have been strengthened and supported by Christians whose faith has been refined in fires that can scorch our body, and even worse, afflict our heart, mind, and very soul. I believe that the wisest marital advice often comes not only from well trained marriage counselors but those who have been battered and bruised if not broken by marital trouble but have emerged with deeper and richer relationships; sometimes, these “better” relationships came at a high price that few people would choose to pay.
The same is true when it comes to most any form of pain and suffering. I learn the most from a concentration camp survivor like Corrie ten Boom, a quadriplegic like Joni Eareckson Tada, and a grief-stricken husband like C.S. Lewis working-writing his way through a devastating personal loss. His book “A Grief Observed” probes far deeper into the nature of faith, life, death and afterlife than his far more cerebral “The Problem of Pain.” The first was authored by a man in the throes of hellacious grief while the second authored by a philosophically minded professor ensconced in his Oxford study.
My faith in Christ is anchored in a God who leaves me humbled and mystified by His willingness to humble Himself by being born as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, going through childhood and adolescence, suffering with us as an itinerant teacher and preacher, prophet and healer; and then, going through the Greatest Tribulation by dying for us on a cross and joining David and an innumerable host of suffering questioners in crying out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”
Third, I am perhaps now ready to deal with the question of “Why can’t God make square circles?” Of course, this is a question used by atheists and agnostics, questioners and doubters who are troubled if not downright angered by the seeming failure of a supposedly omnipotent God to create a pain-free world peopled with happy creatures! The up-front, trigger question is far easier to answer than the latter question that is at the root of many angry atheists and doubting Thomases.
Let’s deal with the first question: Why can’t God make square circles? The short answer is that God does not go against His nature, cannot “deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13), cannot be illogical or nonsensical. It is self-contradictory to make squares circles, or things they are not.
C.S. Lewis has explained the “intrinsically impossible” perhaps better than anyone. In his “The Problem of Pain” he writes how if something is self-contradictory it is absolutely impossible – called intrinsically impossible because it carries its impossibility within itself – God’s omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense – intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities.
It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.
The root question/problem about why God allows so much suffering and evil must be faced with both honesty and humility. Whenever we are confronted with piercing pain within ourselves or written on the faces of those we love, we ask the same question Job and the Psalmists raised, as any thoughtful sufferer is tempted to think if not verbalize.
My always tentative answer is spelled out in the book of Job where God answers the atheist’s strongest argument. He answers the question by asking Job about His ability to look over and beyond his present experience. Can he in fact see what God did in the beginning, is doing behind the scenes, and will do when He issues His curtain call? God corrects the ignorance and arrogance expressed not only by Job’s friends but also Job. He reminds Job how he did not realize God was with him through it all.
God is Immanuel – God with us. As David said it so well: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.” The final analysis what we need most of all is not an explanation about God and His ways that are so over and beyond us, but we need an experience with God Who is with us and for us! This is what is so definitively and dramatically demonstrated in the Person of Jesus Christ!
While atheists and agnostics use the problem of suffering and evil as their number one weapon against belief in God it helps to remember this is also their own number one Achilles Heel! When they start talking about God being responsible for evil and suffering, I reply: Who is demonstrably responsible for the worst hells on earth within the history of humanity? Atheistic Communism and Nazism tortured and murdered infinitely more people than all religions and philosophies combined, and did so without even a twitch of conscience in their godless pursuit of a heaven on earth.
It is most appropriate that the Russian author Dostoevsky in his “The Brothers Karamasov” had this rather prophetic line: “If there is no God everything is permitted.” Without moral constraints all hell can and does break loose.
There is the persistent temptation to hold God responsible for creating people with the ability to reject Him and His goodness while asserting their own free wheeling independence. Can God create a people who can think and feel, speak, and act for ourselves without the option to believe or disbelieve, love or hate, praise or curse, be kind and gracious or unkind and malicious?
Although we may blame our parents, our heredity, our environment, the plain fact stands out that we are responsible for what we choose to believe and how we choose to behave. While we are horrified by what the Adolph Hitlers, Joseph Stalins, and Mao tse-tungs freely chose to do in defiance of God and against humanity, such evil people are eclipsed by the Corrie ten Booms, Dietrich Bonhoeffers, and Alexander Solzhenitsyns who swam into a tidal wave of evil with the assurance that Easter Sunday follows Good Friday, that God’s goodness does triumph over human evil.
Ultimately speaking, the Apostle Paul’s words written amidst his own personal struggle against evil and suffering are truly true: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).