Haiti, Hurting and a loving God.

25 Jan

A while back I knocked together a little eBook. Essentially a reworking of some sermons, lunch bars and essays I’d written on common apologetics questions like science vs. religion, religious pluralism etc.

When I was preparing this is was struck by the thought that one apologetics question is quite unlike any other we might ask. While the majority are merely academic obstacles we can debate until blue in the face (and then call peace and go for a drink), one question stands out. What about suffering?

The question of suffering is deeply personal and extremely emotive and it’s not one we should tackle in a cold, academic fashion.

Haiti has us all asking some really tough, hard, honest questions. Below was my effort at answering probably the toughest of all. I hope it stands up in the face of what’s gone on. (Either click ‘read more’ or click eBooks above and open Answers to Ageless Questions)

This topic, that of suffering, is quite unlike those generally discussed in apologetics. While science and religious pluralism can seem dry, distant,  something we can tackle on a purely intellectual level, suffering is not. While a disagreement about the place of science or the validity of the ‘one mountain’ argument can be picked up, tossed aside pretty much at will, the effects of suffering on us cannot. So before we start, we make that acknowledgement. That no matter what is said, suffering still hurts and can leave lasting marks.

The Challenge

So what’s the challenge then? Why are we addressing the subject? Well in the 17th century, this way of thinking arose, that God could be defended or defeated purely in terms of logic and reasoning. It led to the following “argument” to be laid out.

i) God is omnipotent and omniscient (this is deduced from both philosophical logic and scripture)

ii) God is completely good

iii) There is suffering and evil in the world

The suggestion is then made that these three statements are inconsistent. In other words i) & ii) can’t be so if iii) is correct and iii) can’t be true if i) & ii) are correct. Our experience tell us that iii) is correct so either i) or ii) or both are wrong! Success, God is no longer who we thought he was (if anything at all!)

But actually the reasoning is incomplete. At least one more premise must be added if we want to nail God’s coffin.

Either a) a good and omnipotent God could eliminate suffering altogether or b) There could not be morally sufficient reasons for God to permit suffering.

If either of these were shown to be correct then indeed a potentially fatal blow would have been landed against the Christian (at least) conception of God.

But, logic does not allow us to say that either statement is true. Philosopher David Hume said that anyone who dares say “a better world is possible.” Puts themselves in a very dangerous position indeed!

C.S.Lewis, in his book “the problem of pain,” unsurprisingly tackles the suffering issue and states the problem like so:

“If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either the goodness, or power, or both!”

This is essentially what is being said. Unsurprisingly Lewis doesn’t finish there in a sulk cursing a morally compromised, limited power god.  Instead he attacks the attacker, charging them to answer a few questions, “What is good?” “What do you mean by omnipotence?” Too often he says these phrases are banded around willy nilly with little or no explanation.

What does it mean to say God is omnipotent then? Does it mean that God can do anything? Anything at all? Does it exclude that once God has decided to act or do certain things then other possibilities are excluded?

Can we actually say, “God has given a creature free will but has at the same time decided to withhold free will from it?” Well if he is omnipotent then yes! Or, no. Because in making such a statement you have not succeeded in saying anything! What you’ve said is nonsense! Meaningless combinations of words do not all of a sudden obtain meaning because we stick the words ‘God can’ at the start! It still remains true that God can do all things, even if we acknowledge that these intrinsic impossibilities are nothing but non-entities.

It should be clear that whether we speak about God or his weakest created creature, nonsense remains nonsense. Neither can perform mutually exclusive alternatives, not because of a lack of power, but because nonsense is nonsense…even with God!

Lewis and other philosophers continue to argue that the existence and experience of suffering cannot arise from a lack of divine power. Far from it. But rather if God creates a material universe and gives creatures freedom of actions within that universe, then suffering  follows as a matter of course. It is a nonsense statement to make when we say “God could create a universe of life and free will but without suffering.” It’s the same as saying he can make a square circle!

Nonsense is still nonsense even with God

Next then, what about that deceptively simple word…’goodness’? In Christian thinking the goodness of God is an expression, an outworking of the Love of God. And too often we confuse this with the sentimental mushy love we humans have for each other. Instead we just realise that the Love of God isn’t just some happy go lucky outlook with hedonism it’s goal. It’s a divine love which begins and ends with God. A love which embraces suffering as suffering as a consequence of the greater gifts which are life and freedom. Real life implies suffering. If God were to take away suffering from us he would need to take away life itself.

Lewis concludes, “the problem of reconciling  human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble if we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look upon events as if man was at the centre.”

Goodness comes from love, while the greatest gift is life

I hope you can see that it isn’t illogical for suffering to occur in a world created by a loving God, rather it is entirely logical.

God Suffered

Indeed it is all well and good saying that God’s love and gift of life and freedom require some sort of suffering, but it is little consolation to think that the eternal, all powerful God who created can quite happily sit by and observe the suffering of His creation. If anything this point of view may only lead to resentment. Which is why it is vital that in any Christian discussion of suffering we should never be too far from the suffering of God Himself. God suffered in Christ. And we aren’t to far from it are we? Today is Palm Sunday, the final stage of Christ journey to the cross. He knows what it’s like to experience pain, “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified (Mark 15:15). Imagine that! He knows what it’s like to feel abandonment: “Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: ‘Before the cock crows twice you will disown me three times’ (Mark 14:72)! He knows what it’s like to feel death: “With a loud cry Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:37).

We cannot discuss suffering without acknowledging that the God who decided to breathe life into us in the first place, knowing that suffering would follow, decided also that he himself would share in our sufferings. What a glorious truth!

Suffering now, glory later

And then what happens? What comes after, what makes up for suffering? The sceptic is still crying out, “nothing can make up for suffering!”

But the resurrection of Christ should scream to us even louder. The resurrection of Christ allows us to see His suffering through the perspective of eternity. His suffering is not pointless, but leads to glory! Those who share in the sufferings of Christ, like he shared in our sufferings, may through the resurrection of Christ know what awaits them at the end of history. Don’t believe me, well look what Paul said in Romans 8:18: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

This is no dream, this isn’t idle speculation, there are grounds for his conviction! Those grounds are the suffering and resurrection of Jesus and the knowledge that faith binds us to him! It guarantees that we will share in his heritage.

Just as suffering is real, so are the promises of God and the hope of eternal life. The future removal of our suffering is not a spiritual anaesthetic, designed merely to enable us to cope with life’s sorrows while they last. The death and resurrection of Christ, linked with the giving of the Holy Spirit, are pledges and guarantees that what has been promised will one day be brought to glorious realisation. For the moment we struggle and suffer in sadness mingled with bewilderment. But one day, all that will be changed for the people of God:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Revelation 21:3-4

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