Recently I listened to a debate online between two biblical scholars—one a famous British academic who holds a more or less traditionally orthodox view of Christianity and the Bible, the other an American and well-known former fundamentalist turned aggressive agnostic. They gathered to discuss the problems of evil and suffering and the Bible’s response to them.
The orthodox Christian, aided by his accent and scholarly heir, came across as measured and assured. This is how we’re approaching the question incorrectly, he said. This is what the Bible says, and this is what it doesn’t. This is why the problem of evil, while troubling, isn’t fatal to Christianity.
The agnostic, on the other hand, sounded shrill and sweaty (insofar as one can sound sweaty), agitated from the start. But the Holocaust! he said repeatedly and in response to everything. Six million Jews. Concentration camps. Mounds of hands and baskets of ears. Bodies bulldozed into graves. And God was where?
If you judged on rhetorical skill, the number of points made or the willingness to engage one’s opponent, the Christian would surely have won (as much as one can “win” a never-ending debate). He was calm and clear. He approached the topic academically but with sensitivity. He had his points, and he made them. I pictured the agnostic pushing his glasses up his nose and gesticulating wildly. If I didn’t speak English and judged purely on tone and pacing, it was a landslide.
But since I do speak English—just fine, thank you—and don’t judge debates like that, I came away deeply troubled.
Not long after I heard that debate, I learned that the father of an acquaintance was walking his dog in the country when a truck accidentally left the road and hit him. Since he was a local radio personality, the news article covering his death drew quite a few comments online. God must have needed another angel in heaven, one of the first commentators wrote.
Really? I wanted to ask. This comforts you? When God starts running low on angels, He zaps a few humans—problem solved?
Clearly we have trouble with this conversation.
The gist of the problem
While one can do so in a lot more words, the problem of evil is rarely, if ever, stated differently than this: God is all powerful. God is all loving. Evil and suffering exist. If God wants to alleviate suffering but can’t, He’s not all powerful. If He can but chooses not to, He’s not all loving. You get the idea.
The Christian can, in turn, attempt an academic response, which might include something about free will or logical impossibilities or the best of all possible worlds. But we’re usually left with a foundation of maybes and could-bes, a defensive stance, a you-can’t-prove-that posture. Which is no small thing, truly, but cold comfort in the face of holocausts or tsunamis, the deaths of parents or children.
Alternatively, Christians can forgo debates entirely and aim instead for a heart of comfort. This can be horribly schmaltzy (see above, concerning angels) or deeply, powerfully reassuring (in light of Christ’s suffering and our future hope), but either way it rarely addresses the also-important why? questions. The heart of the Gospel story is the assertion that God saw our brokenness and pain and sin and would not look away, instead sending His Son to die for us and heal the world. But the obvious, unasked question is: What took him so long?
What about mystery? Would that solve it all?
It’s tempting at this point to slip a third variable into the equation: mystery. The embrace of mystery has become something of a fad among hip, young Christians, no doubt in response to the noisy type of believer who draws a straight line from his mind to God’s and is constantly saying things that make us all look bad.
But mystery is a conversation-stopper and, like bankruptcy or the ejector seat, only useful as a last resort. Picture mystery as a brick wall in our proverbial path. When we reach it, we stop. And along the way, there are plenty of walls that appear to be brick but, when prodded, are actually cardboard or plastic or paper-maché walls painted to seem brick-like. We can get past them. And if we stop at the first sign of a wall, we’re missing a good portion of the journey.
So, to answer the question Why does God allow evil and suffering? with It’s a mystery provides little assurance, emotionally or intellectually. There’s certainly some part of this whole mess that’s mysterious, but we should only feel comfortable saying so when we’ve banged our heads against the wall long enough to know it’s solid.
Here’s where it’s really at
Now for some thoughts that have probably already occurred to you. Any adequate Christian response to evil and suffering (which is completely different from the comfort we would offer a person in the midst of suffering) almost certainly has to include aspects of all three: the intellectual, the emotional and the mysterious. We go wrong in the conversation when we pick up the intellectual ball, find it lacking, put it down, and then pick up the emotional ball, find it lacking, put it down, and so on and so forth.
The trick is getting all three balls in the air together. This is unquestionably harder. But it’s also worth it. No one goes to the circus to see the clown juggle one at a time.
Obvious point number two: This, like all things Christian, has to start with Jesus. We don’t accept Christianity because of its crackin’ explanation for evil and suffering. We accept it because Jesus Christ is the risen Lord and King. Everything follows from this.
Wait, let me emphasize that. Everything follows from this.
So we have a new first question, and it’s not Why does God allow evil and suffering? That comes later. The first question is: If Jesus really is God, what in the world is God doing on a cross? As I’ve heard Tim Keller rightly point out, this reframing of the question doesn’t tell us the reason for suffering, but it immediately tells us what it isn’t. It can’t be that God doesn’t care.
There’s a temptation with these questions to shoot for the easy answer, the quick solution. Give me something pithy about free will or the cross—a C.S. Lewis quote will do—and I’m outta here. No one wants to spend any more time thinking about pain and death than they have to. But can we really expect a short answer to such a complex question? Don’t our paltry attempts disrespect the depth and magnitude of suffering?
We make a terrible mistake when we lose patience and panic early, as if it’s a surprise that one of the world’s hardest questions about God takes more than a few sentences to answer. So instead, strap in for the long haul. Don’t read essays like this and treat them as an end. They’re a beginning. The journey will be tough, but be confident in Christ and unafraid of the truth. These things are difficult. That difficulty is appropriate.
Jonathan Dunn lives with his wife in Raleigh, NC. He holds degrees in English and theology from Wheaton College and currently spends most of his day reading math and science textbooks.