“How long, O LORD, will I call for help, And You will not hear? I cry out to You, “Violence!” Yet You do not save” (Hab. 1:2). Those words could have been written yesterday by someone on the wrong side of pain and suffering, but they were actually written 2,500 years ago by a Bible prophet. It’s been said that no other single issue keeps more people from God – or troubles them so much in their relationship with God – than the issue of suffering. We confirmed that to be the case recently when we were taking the Christian message onto the streets of Leigh, in Lancashire, northwest England. Almost 1 in 5 of the people surveyed volunteered that, if they cared to hear any topic addressed in church, it would be this one. That’s in part at least why it’s our topic for this series. It presents us with both emotional and intellectual challenges, as we’ll see.
At 9:02, in the morning of April 19, 1995, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh detonated 4,800 lbs of fertilizer and fuel oil. The resulting blast destroyed the Federal Government Building in Oklahoma, killing 168 people. That bombing was then the largest act of domestic terrorism in the U.S., shattering its pre-911 innocence. Rescue services, as well as bystanders, rushed to pull victims out of the twisted wreckage. As they sifted through the rubble, the small, half-buried body of a critically injured infant was found, and so 1-year-old (Miss) Baylee Almon was thrust into the arms of firefighter, Captain Chris Fields, an image captured by the world’s media. Baylee didn’t make it, her one name out of the 168 remains with me, since she was the same age as my own son.
But it’s not only suffering caused by human atrocities that we need to account for. James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool, in his book, Why Do People Suffer?, tells the story of a school that collapsed when the city it was in was hit by an earthquake. At the school, all the teachers and most of the children were killed. One little boy was badly maimed, and rushed to hospital – barely alive. For hours, a team of medics fought to save his life, while his mother waited anxiously outside the operating theatre. After seven hours of painstaking surgery the little boy finally died.
Instead of leaving it to the nurse to tell the mother, the surgeon himself went out. As he broke the dreadful news, the mother became hysterical in her grief and attacked the surgeon, pummelling his chest with her fists. But instead of pushing her away, the surgeon held her tightly to himself until the woman’s sobbing subsided and she rested, cradled in his arms. And then in the heavy silence the surgeon also began to weep. Tears streamed down his face and grief racked his body, for he’d come to the hospital the moment he had heard that his one and only son had been killed in that same school. Assuming the story to be true, as I do, you may still say to me that what seems to be hinted at there, is not an adequate perspective. The surgeon was certainly loving and skilful, but not being superhuman, he was unable to save the child. So, how does that speak to the global issue of pain? For an all-loving God – as per the Christian claim – who is also allegedly all-powerful, could surely have prevented that or intervened in some way. So how do you answer the question: ‘Why doesn’t God put an end to such misery?’ That was the question Olivia put to me on the streets of Leigh recently. And later she took up the challenge and brought her sister Gemma to sit down with a group of us to discuss what the Bible has to say on this profound and poignant issue of pain – which, in some way, touches every single one of us. The Bible does have things to say on it. In fact, it’s a recurring theme on its pages and one we shall be exploring as we deal with the intellectual, philosophical, theological and emotional aspects of this troublesome question.
THE INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE
The most poignant account of suffering in all the Bible is surely the story of Job. Job was an innocent man who suffered terribly. More than 40 chapters are devoted to the account of this one man’s suffering: a good man to whom bad things happened. Job accused God of falsely judging him (Job 9:20); of wronging him (Job 19:6); of persecuting him (Job 19:22); of not judging the wicked (Job 24:1-12), and of ignoring all his good works (Job 31:1ff). It’s plain to see Job assumed that God was at fault; while his three miserable friends assumed he was at fault for all the anguished suffering he was experiencing. However, another of Job’s friends, Elihu, recognized that, on occasions, suffering can have a purpose. In all his criticism of Job, this more level-headed friend affirmed the sovereignty of God by saying that God doesn’t owe it to us to give any explanation for whatever he chooses to do (Job 33:13).
According to some worldviews, people who do good will experience good things, and people who do bad will experience bad things. That’s not a biblical worldview, as the case of Job shows. In the biblical view, it’s not that simplistic: we can’t fully understand why specific suffering befalls us in this life. Job never learned the true cause of his suffering, not even afterwards. Job did, however, encounter God – who basically said to him, “Trust Me.” Critics see this as a non-answer to the problem. But that wasn’t how Job felt! When Job sees God, it’s as if he no longer needs an answer. God Himself is the answer. Suffering is presented here not so much as a problem requiring a solution; but as a mystery directing us to a Presence.
Having said that, in the vortex of pain, whether our own or whenever we’re caught up in the observed grief of others, it seems that the most natural question to ask is, ‘Why?’. Why did that natural disaster happen? Why did my loved one get cancer? You’ve been there and so have I, having lost my father to cancer. A friend was telling me recently that it was now over a year since he’d been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He mentioned how, when he was in hospital, a colleague had visited him, and that colleague – most unexpectedly – is now no longer with us. Since then, my friend has undergone surgery and is now fairly fit and well again, and with a reasonable expectation that things will be quite fine. “God is good!” he exclaimed. And God is good. But what if the cancer had taken my friend and it was his colleague who had been the one to survive? Would God be any less good? God would still be good, for that’s part of His character which doesn’t change.
But we’ve this tendency to think of God as good only when we get relief from our pain. So, is the reality of suffering – and the existence of evil – a valid argument against the existence of a good God? Let me approach this by asking you to imagine we’re called out to a crime scene. A body has been found in the woods, and beside it lies an axe which has been shown to be the murder weapon. You make a mental note that the axe has been finely crafted. A tool, expertly designed for cutting down trees, has been diverted for the purpose of committing a foul deed. You think to yourself: suppose someone argues that because it’s been put to evil use – because it has caused suffering – no-one could possibly exist who made it. What a nonsensical argument that would be! For it’s clear that the axe has a skilfully machined head, and its handle is an example of exquisite carpentry. True, it’s been employed for a wrong use, but that in no way negates the fact that someone made it! That fact is established on grounds other than its use. And it’s the same with the case for God. The existence and operation of evil in the world doesn’t negate the clear evidence from design which points to a supernatural designer of the universe (an argument endorsed in the Bible, see Rom. 1:20). But what kind of God is this creator God who so clearly exists, given that he appears to tolerate evil in the world?
THE PHILOSPHICAL AND THEOLOGICAL CHALLENGES
What can we say about the existence of evil? What are the implications for our belief in God? Far from being a denial of God’s existence, as some think – it in fact further strengthens the case for God’s existence! How is that, you ask? Take militant UK atheist Richard Dawkins. He argues – and he’s being logically consistent – that ‘no god’ means ‘no evil’.(1)
His point is, if there’s no God, then there’s no basis for us all agreeing – or even recognising – that something is ‘evil’. There could only be individual preferences based on feelings or variable legal opinions. So, taking that same argument in reverse, we can ask: how does the existence of evil actually strengthen the case for God? The full argument runs like this: if there’s no God, then there can be no objective moral values. But why, then, is there widespread agreement that events like MH17 (the Malaysian airliner shot down over the Ukraine) are evil? This is a clear indication that objective moral values really do exist, and so God must exist after all – for there’s no other way to get them, as Dawkins concedes. But what kind of God is He – if He allows suffering (which is more general than evil, and is not always related to man’s inhumanity)? And how is suffering compatible with belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God? Earlier in this series, I mentioned my friend who underwent surgery. He suffered a lot of discomfort and pain as a result of the surgical procedures. But is he glad that he had the surgery? Yes, of course. There was a morally sufficient reason for the pain and suffering caused by the surgeon – namely, the longer-term wellbeing of the patient. Now, if humans – like that surgeon – can have a morally sufficient reason for causing suffering, then who are we to say that God can’t have a morally sufficient reason when He allows suffering? To deny the all-loving character of God, we’re going to have to first confidently prove that God could never have morally sufficient reasons. And that’s obviously impossible. The Bible prophet Habakkuk cried out to God about the injustice and evil he saw all around him. God answered Habakkuk, but it wasn’t the response he expected. In fact, it caused him to suffer more confusion. For God declared that He was about to use a fierce, cruel, neighbouring people to be the instrument of His judgment. Habakkuk then struggled with how God could use these more wicked foreigners to deal with – what he now saw as – the smaller problems of injustice among his own people. He asked God again,Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they (Hab. 1:13c)? God responded a second time, declaring that He would settle every score, but it might take longer than Habakkuk was hoping. Until then, He asked Habakkuk to trust Him with the famous Bible words: the righteous will live by his faith (Hab. 2:4c). The remarkable thing is that God enabled him to find joy, even in suffering, for God had provided a morally sufficient reason. And so, Habakkuk did find faith in suffering. That in itself is not unusual. Sometimes, suffering actually brings the one who suffers closer to God. Randy Alcorn in his book (2), says: ‘Western atheists turn from belief in God because a tsunami in another part of the world [has] caused great suffering, [but at the same time] many broken-hearted survivors of that [very] same tsunami [have] found faith in God. This is one of the great paradoxes of suffering.’ And it’s one I’ve seen with my own eyes on the Pacific Rim. Talking of tsunamis, natural disasters, and also human-caused disasters, perhaps an illustration may help us to glimpse why the world is now as it is. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, off Alaska. Within hours the beautiful, snowy-white coastline of this previously unspoilt wilderness was transformed by a coating of thick black sludge as 232,000 barrels of oil spilled out from the hold of the stricken tanker. But there was worse to come. Three-quarters of the salmon population that normally migrated to the area did not return the following season. Thousands of seabirds and otters died in this ecological disaster. A place that was originally beautiful had been spoilt by a human blunder. Note, by a human blunder. When a newspaper once posed the question: ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ G.K. Chesterton wrote a published reply which simply said: ‘I am.’ Indeed, we all are. The world wasn’t originally the way it is today, but God gave us the human dignity of freewill, and we shoulder responsibility for how we’ve used that.
References: (1) God’s Utility Function, published in Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85 (2) Alcorn, R, If God is Good, Multnomah, p. 102
THE EMOTIONAL CHALLENGE
The Times’ leader column, the day after the horrific massacre at an infant school in Dunblane, Scotland (on 13 March 1996), said: ‘Christ was born among innocent slaughter and died on the Cross to pay the cost of our terrible freedom – a freedom by which we can do the greatest good or the greatest evil.’ Early in human history, using our God-given free will, we blundered, the Bible says … and just like the captain of the Exxon Valdez, we transformed this world into its present mess (Rom. 5:12; 8:20-22). But this issue is as much an emotional one as it is an intellectual, philosophical and indeed theological one. In his book, ‘The View from a Hearse’, Joe Bayly tells the story of two men who came to comfort him after the death of his three sons. The first came with answers. He said that God had a plan, that God could work it out for good, and that God would give Joe strength. The second man simply came to sit with Joe. He didn’t speak unless spoken to, but he prayed with Joe and sat in silence alongside him. Joe writes that though both men had good intentions, he couldn’t wait for the first man to leave and he couldn’t bear to see the second man go. The Bible does have things to say about pain and suffering. But ultimately, the God of the Bible is more like the man who gave his presence than the man who gave his answers. The Bible leaves many of our specific questions about suffering unanswered. But what it does do, is tell us the story of a God who’s drawn close in our suffering – and actually suffered for us – and who will one day abolish suffering forever for those who love Him. I’m reminded of a Church of Scotland minister who was being interviewed by a BBC News reporter on 21 December, 1988, after Pan Am Flight 103 had exploded in the sky over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The fires were still burning when the reporter turned on the minister and asked, “Where is your God now?” To which the unforgettably calm reply was: “God has joined us in suffering – in the person of His Son, He came as a man, Jesus Christ, and joined us in suffering.” He did that when, 2,000 years ago, He paid the price of our freewill and spiritual rebellion on a Roman cross outside the city of Jerusalem in the turbulent Middle East. There’s pain at the heart of the Christian message of hope – and it’s the pain of God. In all suffering, a question mark remains (for we don’t presume to have all the answers); but at the very core of the Christian message, there’s not only human pain – the cross of Christ is the mark of divine suffering.
John Stott, after examining other world views, turned from them, and wrote: ‘… in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That’s the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his’.(1) And the poet Edward Shillito said, while looking out on the devastation of war: ‘To our wounds only God’s wounds can speak’. Another man who looked out over ruins brought about by war was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, former mayor of Cologne, imprisoned by Hitler for opposing the Nazi regime, and later chancellor of the West German Federal Republic. Adenauer truly deserves the title of ‘statesman’, as he picked up the broken pieces of his country and helped to rebuild it in a fractured world. On one occasion, over against the backdrop of a landscape ravaged by war, he looked evangelist Billy Graham in the eye and said, “Mr. Graham, do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead?” Graham, somewhat surprised by his question answered, “Of course I do.” Replied Chancellor Adenauer, “Mr. Graham, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, I do not know of any other hope for this world.” Why? Because the resurrection of Christ, for the believer on Him, guarantees that, for all His followers, there’ll ultimately be a pain-free future when an all-loving and all-powerful God – who crucially did intervene 2,000 years ago – will finally wipe away all tears from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Until then, the God who’s there draws silently close in love, and invites us to put all our trust in Him.
References: (1) J.R.Stott, The Cross of Christ