If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
This was the question posed by the Barna Group in a nationwide survey some years ago. While some responded with questions about the world or heaven, the overwhelming majority cried, "Why is there so much pain and suffering?"
The evidence of our pain and suffering is everywhere; we needn't look very far for it this year. Satisfactory answers about its origin and its conclusion, on the other hand, are not. In our passing conversations, we half-heartedly say to others, "Well, perhaps things will start getting better soon." But what if they don't?
Now more than ever, it's good to take a closer look at the Christian confession about evil, pain, and suffering.
The History of Evil
Genesis 3 provides the account of our fall into sin. In just six verses, evil breaks into the world through Satan and tempts Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit in the garden. With it comes all pain, suffering, and death. In Paradise Lost, Milton imagines the horror of Satan's escape from hell where he has been cast after his failed rebellion against God, saying:
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
Th' infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Harsh thunder, that the lowest bottom shook
Of Erebus. She opened, but to shut
Excelled her power; the gates wide open stood (Book II)
Milton goes on to have us peer through the leaves of Eden and hopelessly watch Eve as, "Greedily she engorged without restraint, And knew not eating death." As Dan Price recently put it, Satan's temptation was a promise to have morality, or the ability to discern good from evil. The price for this knowledge was a painful, deadly curse under which each of us is now born. With it, as Dan said, came the realization that we are no longer 'very good.'
Out of this act came a sort of cognitive dissonance that has tortured humanity for millennia. Epicures, one of the ancient Greek philosophers, was one of the first to frame up this question of the so-called Problem of Evil: "If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?" (Lactantius, The Wrath of God)
Western thought has focused much attention on this question and provided a basic argument to consider:
- If God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly good, there would be no evil in the world.
- There is evil in the world.
- Therefore, God does not exist
More recently, as Germans peppered London with bombs during World War II, C.S. Lewis penned, "If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow his creatures to suffer pain?" in his well-known book, The Problem of Pain.
Lewis' answer? He admits he cannot comprehend why, only leaving us with this: "What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil" (The Problem of Pain).
A few years later, a man named Alvin Plantinga would poke holes in Epicure's three-part construction of the problem of evil and render it's form invalid. He would prove that an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God and the existence of evil are not explicitly contradictory things. Pressing this further, we might suggest that only by allowing evil to exist was man truly free to turn away from it. After all, if God initially never gave us a choice, how could we truly, freely love him?
Where Our Philosophical Thinking Fails
Philosophical arguments - like Plantinga's and others - will likely never reach a conclusion on this side of eternity. And frankly, that's OK. What good is this discussion, anyways, in times of pain and suffering?
John Feinberg, in his book, Where is God? tells the story of a child who fell and scraped her knee. As he sees it, the child's mother is left with a choice as she looks to her sobbing child. She may try and explain to the child that she was running too fast or even elaborate on the laws of physics and how they were working against her when she fell.
But, as Dr. Feinberg points out, "All the explanation at that moment doesn't stop her pain. The child doesn't want a discourse; she wants and needs her mother's hugs and kisses. There will be time for the discourse later; now, she needs comfort."
The same is true for all of us. When we're in pain, we don't need a syllogism. We need to know we're going to be okay. Where philosophers will debate and speculate, God speaks clear words of comfort and acts.
The Psalmist tells us this: "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit...He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Ps 34:18, 147:3). When we are depressed, scared, and physically and mentally hurting, we can be sure that the God of the universe is watching closely. And as he approaches, he doesn't say, "See, I told you so. If you would have just listened to me..." He instead holds us close, kisses and bandages our wounds, and with real empathy, promises that everything is going to be okay
How is this possible?
God is No Spectator
This God of the universe also experienced human suffering and sorrow–not in some theoretical or figurative way, but as a real man named Jesus. His heart really ached as he heard about the sudden death of a loved one. He was left alone and let down by his friends when he needed them most. He experienced real anger, disappointment, anxiety, and even depression.
As Jesus hung on the cross, bleeding to death and gasping for air to breathe, his organs shut down. If we are ever to find any empathy or comfort in our pain, it is in knowing this fact: Our God died. Only through the cross of Christ can we know the true heart of God.
Kazoh Kitamori in Theology of The Pain of God helps explain why. "The cross is neither the wrath of God alone nor the love of God alone, but the synthesis of the two." He continues, "God who must sentence sinners to death fought with the God who wishes to love them." It is this, he says, which causes God's pain. Returning to Genesis 3, Christ became a curse for us so that we may be free. In this way, his wounds heal our wounds, as Kitamori tells us.
"Only the suffering God can help," wrote an imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would eventually hang in a Nazi prison. Bonhoeffer's words ring true today. But the real good news is that God did not remain in his pain and suffering. Through his resurrection, he put death to death and toppled the tyranny of evil and pain. And his victory is our victory.