Surely there's too much suffering for there to a God?
David Randall has spent much of his working life as a minister in the Church of Scotland to the north-east fishing community of Macduff. Dealing with the everyday lives and problems of ordinary people in their often harsh North Sea environment, he is no stranger to suffering. He writes :
I've never forgotten James. When he was a toddler, he had fallen down several flights of stairs in an Edinburgh tenement; he suffered brain damage and for many years until his eventual death, lived in a little cot, completely unable to do a thing or himself. Life was exceedingly difficult for him and of course or his family.
I visited James throughout my days as a student, and I suppose his story was the kind of thing Ivan might have entered in his notebook - Ivan being a character in one of Dostokevsky's novels, who, whenever he heard of any instance of suffering and evil, would note it down. He called that notebook his laboratory for proving the non-existence of God.
Similarly, a nurse once said, "No one who has nursed cancer patients can believe In God". Actually of course many do - in fact we have to take account- of the fact that many people have come to have a stronger faith even through times of suffering and trial. But still, you can feel the heat of that nurse's statement, can't you? It isn't the comment of someone in an ivory tower trying to build a philosophy, but of a practical person trying to cope with
life as it is. Just as I had to try to reconcile James' experience with what I was studying in the class-rooms and library of the divinity college.
Our concern here is with such questions :
-does Ivan's notebook prove that there's no God?
-Is the existence of suffering an insurmountable barrier to belief?
Or can Christianity give any explanation of the existence of suffering;
- is faith in a loving and almighty God credible in a suffering world;
- can such a faith help peoplecope with life?
Michael Green has written: "Suffering is one of the ultimate mysteries of life for all of us, Christians and everyone else. But the Christian must not be embarrassed by the question. We have a better answer than anyone else!" A bold claim, but let's think about it.
Can we make sense of suffering?
Suppose you had thousands of little cards, and on each one was a musical note; and suppose you were to throw them up in the air and go away, and when you came back later you found them arranged in such a way as to make a melody. Wouldn't you say, "A musician has been here"? You would never in a month of Sundays believe that such a result could have come about by chance; and what's more, even if you noticed a few apparent discords, you would still be convinced
that a musician had been at work.
Our claim is that, although we don't know ALL the answers, Christianity makes better sense of the issues than any other explanation. I often think of a student who wrote a philosophy essay in which he criticised a certain view. When he got the essay back, he found that the Professor had written in the margin: "Every theory has its difficulties, but you have not considered whether. any other theory has less difficulties than the one you have criticised".
That makes you think. If we reject belief in God, how do we explain the existence of goodness; indeed where does our concept of 'goodness' come from, and why should what we call goodness be-valued? C.S.Lewis put it like this, reflecting on-his own pre-Christian thinking,
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust? ... atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no neaning, we could never have found out that it has no meaning."
But what does Christianity have to say about the existence of suffering?
I want to suggest that, in considering such questions, we must take account
of 5 things.
the reliability of the laws of nature
the reality and consequences of human freedom
the limitations of our knowledge
the sufferings of Jesus Christ
the testimony of many who have found a stronger faith even through suffering
1. The fact that the world works by certain laws of nature which are uniform and reliable.
Life would be very difficult if the law of gravity applied sometimesbut not at others. Just walking down the street would be a very unpredictable affair. That is not something we'd want to change, even supposing we could, and even although we know that one of the results of gravity is that people get hurt when they fall. Or in the game of rugby, picture a winger going for a try, and the opposing full-back coming across to cut him off; how convenient for the winger if somehow the touch-line
could just move back a few yards and let him swerve round the full-back and score! But of course the game would be impossible if that kind of thing could happen. Any game - be it rugby, a computer game, or the game of life itself - depend on there being certain rules around which the whole thing is organised.If certain things weren't fixed, the game would not work.And that's true of the game of life. To demand that God must do something every time to stop a road accident or a murder would mean suspending the
laws of nature a thousand times a second. The sort of God who would suddenly take hold of the steering wheel of every drunk driver, or stop every bullet in mid-flight would leave a universe in which nothing could be relied upon.
2. We must take account of the reality of human freedom
The simple, if unpalatable, fact is that most human suffering is the result of human stupidity, folly or sin. It results from the using our freedom to make choices about how to act. Most of the things Ivan would probably put in his notebook come into this category - as the consequences of human choices. God gives us freedom, even though that entails risk. Why? For the same reason that parents allow their children to take the risks involved in learning to walk, ride a bicycle, or ski - so
they can enjoy life and be all they can be. God has gives humanity that same freedom, even with all the risks that involves, so that we can develop and grow as human beings.
Unfortunately, human beings have a poor track record in our use of this freedom. We have a terrible tendency to cause pain to one another. To quote C.S.Lewis again, "It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets and bombs." As a parish minister, I remember two separate tragedies in which young people were killed in road accidents. In one case, somone said "it must be God's will", and in the other,
could God let it happen?" At the time I could only try to hear out their anger and grief, but really, in both cases the fault wasn't God's, but some other human being's.
It's often that way, but of course it isn't always. Although the Bible undoubtedly sees a link between suffering and human sin, it is far from being a simple of cause and effect. Jesus referred to a disaster when a tower collapsed and killed eighteen people. He asked, "Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?" In other words were they being punished for their sinfulness? He said, no, it isn't like that, and we
shouldn't make easy assumptions. Maybe there was design fault in the construction of the tower, but the 18 who were killed were not being punished for their especial sinfulness.
A whole book of the Bible (the book of Job) is devoted to the demolition of the view that if you suffer it must be a direct punishment for something bad you've done. The Bible urges us neither to torture ourselves with "What did I do to deserve this?", nor to imply that other people's sufferings must be receiving a punishment for had things they have done.
3. But what about these other cases where there is no discernible reason for the suffering?
The possibility of suffering is introduced by the reality of human freedom but, as we have said, also by the uniformity of the laws of nature. There are causes of suffering which have nothing to do with human choices - cyclones, earthquakes, babies born with handicaps, unaccountable kinds of illnesses. The third part of a Christian response is to recognise that we have only limited knowledge. If you knew nothing about surgical operations, and you were taken
a theatre where you saw someone using knives and other insruments on helpless patient, you might think it was awful and cruel. But the problem would be in your lack of knowledge, not appreciating the larger picture.
Much of the problem in suffering is because we cannot see how it fits on a larger scale. We're short-sighted, like people standing too close to a painting in an art gallery, looking only at a little section of it. But part of our human condition is that we can never stand far enough back to take in the whole picture. The Bible's teaching, however, is that there will come a day when Christ will return and set all to rights, when we will see the reason for many
of the presently inexplicable things that happen in this world. It is like the making of a tapestry. Only when it is turned over and the true pattern can be seen, when, in the words of an old poem God will unroll the canvas, will it be obvious why the dark threads were as necessary in the skilful hand of the weaver as the threads of gold and silver. For the moment, we have to take account of the limitations of our knowledge, and trust to the character of God, the master weaver.
4. The reliability of God's character in the face of appalling human suffering is shown more plainly than anything else in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ
Here is the fourth and crucial piece of the Christian jigsaw, which makes so much more sense of the picture.If the whole issue can be crystallised in the question, "Why?", then Christianity's answer centres on another "Why?" - Jesus' cry from the cross on which he was executed, "My God, why have you forsaken me?".The Christian claim is that God has not remained aloof from it all.William Temple put it like this,
"Men say, 'There cannot be a God of love, because if there were and he looked upon this world, his heart would break'. The church points to the cross and says, 'It did break' ".
Christ's sufferings and death on the cross are the heart of the Christian faith.The Scottish theologian Tom Torrance wrote :
"If I did not believe in the cross, I could not believe in God . The cross means that, while there is no explanation of evil, God himself has come into the midst of it in order to take it upon himself, to triumph over it and deliver us from it".
The cross of Jesus Christ is the very symbol of Christianity. It tells us that God has come right into the heart of this suffering world, in order to redeem our humanity from the inside, in the very epitome of innocent suffering. It speaks of the God who did not remain aloof, but came down to take our human nature upon himself, and all our suffering upon himself, in order to remove it for eternity. The God who knows the depths of suffering himself is the one
we can trust to be able to answer the great "Why?".
5. How come suffering so often strengthens people's faith in God?
Finally, we must also take account of the testimony of many many people who have claimed that, far from Ivan's notebook proving the non-existence of God, it has been in the times of trouble and trial that they have come to have a stronger faith than they did before, or faith where before there was none.
It happened for Job in the Bible, who suffered so much, and yet could eventually pray to God, "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you". That speaks of a faith that is no longer a second-hand, impersonal thing. Job still could not say "now I see it all", but rather "I see him", and that made all the difference. It was like the famous Footprints story of the man who had a dream in which he saw his life as a set
of footprints in the sand. Alongside his were God's, but, he said. "How come, God, that in the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me". And the Lord replied in his dream. "My precious child, I love you, and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."
Christianity may not have all the answers to the question of suffering, but I hope that the pointers we have mentioned briefly help to demonstrate the credibilty of Chritstianity even in a suffering world.
We must take account
- of the reliability of the laws of nature,
- of the reality and consequences of human freedom,
- of the limitations of our knowledge,
- of the sufferings of Jesus Christ
- and of the testimony of many who have found a stronger faith even through suffering.
Jesus' first disciples once addressed to him the question, "don' t you care?". In different ways they found suffering the melting pot for faith. One of them, Peter, would later write, 'Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you".