This holiday and festival season gives us a time to pause and reflect on all that we are grateful for. For those of the Christian faith, the season is a remembrance of the bounty we have been granted but not necessarily deserved as well as a celebration of a central tenet of the faith: the birth of Jesus Christ on this earth. Indeed, many of us have much to be thankful for, and it is proper to pause and reflect on these things in a spirit of modest gratitude. This season has given me a great amount of reasons to think on those that have much less reason to celebrate, chiefly in that this season I have been exposed to an inordinate amount of friends and acquaintances that are facing personal loss or dealing with unspeakable and hard to understand tragedies. Indeed, a sense of fairness and justice would indicate within our hearts that people should die old after a life well-lived, that marriages that began with such harmony and joy should not end abruptly with one party seemingly going off the deep end, or that parents should not have to suffer the loss of a child in the prime of their life, that children should not starve or suffer, or that children should not be abused by heinous adults that have guardianship over them. And of course, there are the senseless acts of violence that we seem increasingly subjected to, with domestic terrorism at home with the drumbeat of lone-wolf attackers of schools and theaters and the depravations of ISIS and the jihadist attacks that continue apace, most recently in Paris and Beirut. Aside from evils that befall us in the form of human hands, there are the seemingly random forces of nature that destroy human civilization as well as life. The Indian Ocean tsunami a few years ago that killed hundreds of thousands is a case in point.
What is a person to make of such tragedies? Indeed, the fact that human evil and random suffering from natural forces exists is one of the hardest criticisms leveled at faith to intellectually rebut. The argument that evil and human suffering disproves God’s existence can follow trains of thought that a Creator that is powerful but creates evil in the world and allows it to happen can’t possibly be good, or further if such a creator exists that can’t stop evil, then he must not be powerful. It is recent events that compel my authoring my own beliefs on the subject matter. As a preface, longtime friends won’t confuse me with someone that deals frequently in matters of theology or metaphysics, as I tend to gravitate towards fields one might group into rationalistic aims. I have long not considered myself a theologian qualified to wade into such matters and have long left this sort of discourse to the “experts.” Alas, I was recently reminded by a pastor in my church at Texas that, “everyone is a theologian, they just differ on their views and how good they are at defending them.” Recent events make me feel compelled to record my own views on the critique of human evil and suffering invalidating belief in God, if for nothing else to consolidate into one place for my own historic viewing on the subject. If it so happens to help someone also grappling with this topic, then all the better.
Beginning with the concept that a good God could never allow evil, I draw upon the writings of C.S. Lewis, who focuses on the concept of free will. In his chapter titled, The Shocking Alternative within the wonderful book, Mere Christianity, Lewis discusses why evil is allowed to exist and as the title chapter belies, why the alternative to evil existing is a ‘shocking alternative’ while also subtly pointing out that evil is not actually in God’s will. Within the chapter, Lewis uses one analogy of a parent that knows their children must learn to tidy their room. The parent’s will is that the children learn to be self-sufficient, which is a necessary condition of eventual life as an adult. The conditions that the parent has duly set in place create the conditions for the child to grow and learn, but also creates the conditions for the child to leave an inkwell turned into the carpet, forever staining it. The latter event is hardly the parent’s will, but their designed framework did create the conditions for that to event to be possible.
This type of freedom to choose wrong or right is the order of human nature. We have free will. We can go wrong or right. Thus, free will has made evil possible, but instances of evil are hardly in God’s will. So the question becomes why did God give us free will? Lewis’s answer is that, “…because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating.” Further, Lewis elaborates on how remarkable we are as a creation – we have the great power to do good as well as evil through our remarkable composition, “The better stuff a creature is made of – the cleverer and stronger and freer it is – then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.”
All of this begs the question of what God did do in order to mitigate our descent into unchecked evil. Lewis points out that he left us with a conscience that is powerful in determining right from wrong whether we are Christian or not and he sent Jesus as the ultimate bridge between God and Man, so that those that follow him would have an even greater reason to do good and vitiate evil wherever it is found.
This then gives the reader something to ponder on the nature of evil, but what about random natural forces, accidents, and disease that maim and kill or take lives from us much too soon? There is little logic or solace that I can provide save for what has been previously offered – that a fallen world based upon free will is also going to have its natural forces that are allowed to move and occur and that will inevitably impact us all. If there is any solace that can be given, it is in the sense that the Christian views the life perspective in terms of immortality rather than the short time we spend on earth. As the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, “Time is short. Eternity is forever.” Indeed, when viewed in this perspective, a few short years on this earth will pale in comparison to a life of joy spent in eternity, and perhaps how we respond to tragedies in the short run will provide the mark of our character. Will we collapse in the face of tragedy? Will our faith wane due to the personal impact of tragedy? Or will we remain strong in the hope and knowledge of immortality? Will we use this tragedy to help others that have also been impacted by similar tragedies? Bonhoeffer’s own life experiences makes the quote above quite appropriate and show the mark of character, as his was a life that ended in the prime of his career. At the relative young age of 39 and at the height of his theological writings and impact, and while engaged to be married, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for taking part in a plot to kill Hitler. Even before that fateful decision, Bonhoeffer took courageous vocal stances against the evils of Naziism.
Even within this lifetime, time can heal much pain and give us great perspective on evils and sufferings. While we may fail to ever truly understand them or comprehend them, or indeed praise God for them in this lifetime, there are some of those that we can see from the vantage point of time passed as useful for refining us into who we are as people. Sufferings can make us equal parts more modest, patient, empathetic, loving, prudent, wise, courageous, and divining. I don’t mean to indicate that this is always the case, and indicating to someone in the throes of pain that the tragedy is somehow God’s will or that they will learn from it in the long run is as insensitive as it is theologically unsound. I only mean to indicate that the passage of time can have both healing and a positive effect on one’s outlook. Even when events are too painful for us to bear or understand, the Christian faith provides the example of Jesus, who himself endured tremendous sufferings in his own death on the cross. Thus, if nothing else, we can point to a Creator that can wholly enter into and empathize with our deepest moments of despair. This concept is echoed in Tim Keller’s Reason for God in which he states that, “Christianity alone among the world’s religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment.”
Still, there are some human sufferings that we will fail to see perspective on or that time will fail to heal completely. There are admittedly some things in this life that we are exposed to that seem so profane and so tragic that we will fail to grasp them. Our human faculties may fail to completely reconcile them or in our human frailty, we may fail to see what possible good can come from them, and this can grievously wound our sense of human order and thus our faith. For this, I can only think that just because we fail to see the good in sufferings does not mean that the good is not there. Further, I am drawn to the writings of Dostoevsky, who ironically uses the conflicted agnostic character Ivan in the book The Brothers Karamazov to declare,”
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
What are the practical implications of all of this? One is to not descend into inescapable despair and loss of faith in the face of tragedy while affording ourselves the proper time and feelings of mourning. Unfortunately, evil and sufferings are part of this world and are a necessary component of a free will and allowing us to develop the highest form of love for our fellow man and God. A further implication is to view mankind in terms of immortality and that our time here is remarkably short – we must be busy about serving and loving our fellow man, and using trials and sufferings to those aims wherever we can. When confronted with friends and family that are going through their own tragic circumstances, we need to pray for them to receive comfort and grace, pray with them for healing, mourn for them, and mourn with them. As Matthew 5:4 indicates, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Bonhoeffer indicates that part of this mourning is reflective of the evil that exists in this world and suffer from it. Finally, in this season, I would submit that it is proper to focus on our spiritual and relationship blessings and that it is misguided to speak too much in the presence of others of material ‘blessings.’ I have come to the conclusion that material gains probably matter but little to the things of God, and can even detract from them, particularly if we interpret their gain as God’s favor and the converse, their absence as a sign of his lack of favor. The life and experiences of the apostles on earth, that ended with penury and in most cases death would indicate that God’s desire for our lives can often involve endured hardships. This is the concept embodied in Bonhoeffer’s costly discipleship rather than the soft and weak cheap grace that seems to be embodied in many modern day practitioners of a prosperity gospel. We need to be exceedingly careful not to indicate to those around us that our new house, our large salary, or new car are somehow favors from God. There is a extremely fine line between gratitude, which is appropriate, and self-centered gloating that seems to indicate we have a higher worth or value than others. I would argue that God is often closer to us and more concerned with our tragedies and the tragedies of those around us than with our comfort and ease. In essence, we have a faith based on comfort in the face of tragedies, an immortality that can help us draw timeline perspectives, and a faith that exhorts us to love our fellow man as we love God, meaning we can draw on our tragedies to empathize with and love others. I part with I Corinthians 13:13 – So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.