Where is your God now?

I heard an atheist at a local debate challenge the Christian apologist thus: “Where is your God when I see 14-year-old children dying of cancer?” And to be honest, I identified with his sentiment. There is something existentially revulsive about suffering.

A family loses their children to a drunk driver; a single father who has never smoked is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; even a family dog suffers long with some undiagnosable disease before finally being put down. Where is your God when these things and more, too heinous to recount here, happen?

Throughout the years people have tried to answer that question in a myriad of ways. Some say that suffering is the result of sin. This is, in my estimation, not a very helpful answer. It’s true that, given Christianity, all suffering is the result of sin. Adam sinned, and all of creation was cursed — we live in a fallen world. But knowing that we live in a fallen world offers little comfort when staring death in the face.

Neither is saying that suffering is the result of particular sins very helpful. Sin certainly could be the cause, but when we start to peer into the unrevealed will of God we tend to get things wrong. Think Westboro Baptist Church, here: 9/11 was God’s judgement on America for our sins. While it may be true that sin brings about punishment, this answer tends to go the way of Job’s comrades: Often unhelpful and of little comfort.

In fact, Jesus warned about this kind of speculation in Luke 13 when He said that those on whom the tower fell were not worse sinners than the rest, but that we should repent or likewise perish. According to Christ, the proper response to suffering is not to blame the victim for their own sins but to take a long, hard look at our own sins and repent of them. But this is not, in itself, an answer to the problem of suffering, as much as it is a personal response to tragedy.

So in what way does Christianity offer a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil? What comfort does Christianity offer to those who suffer? What do you say to the child with cancer, or to her parents? For me the only satisfying answer to suffering is Jesus: The Crucified God.

Christianity teaches “the Word became flesh.” That is, the divine Logos, who was God, assumed a human nature and dwelt here among us. He ate and drank and laughed and cried here as a human being. And then He willingly went and suffered a terrible, senseless death. His death was the only time a bad thing happened to a truly and perfectly good person. And He, for the joy set before Him, for the sake of His people, the sheep of His pasture, chose it.

God chose to go to the Cross and die. The Author of Life came to an ignominious end hung from a tree “made through Him.” Death was filled up with the very source of life. This is God’s answer to all human suffering and evil — both the evil we do and the evil done to us. That He Himself suffered with us, and suffered for us, redeems suffering in a way that no other answer can.

I no longer need an answer to specific instances of pain or suffering in my life. If I find out tomorrow that I have two weeks to live, I know that I have nothing to fear. Why? Because the God who hung Himself on the Cross for love of His enemies can be trusted. If God allows suffering in my life, it is to draw me closer to Him.

Of course, why should I expect to understand something as complex as human suffering in the first place? As Alvin Plantinga put it, why should we expect the justification for human suffering to be big and in your face like a Saint Bernard and not more like the no-see-um bug? In fact, the idea of gratuitous suffering is incredibly presumptuous — to assume that if our very limited human perspective is unable to discern what we consider to be a good reason for suffering then such a reason must not exist is, to be charitable, quite arrogant.

Given Christ on the Cross, we cannot call any suffering gratuitous. I cannot tell you how the suffering of an animal trapped in a forest fire will be redeemed by Christ, but I know that He has said “Behold I am making all things new,” and I trust the God who subjected Himself to the curse to save those under the curse. In fact even death itself has been redeemed by the dying God, for death could not and did not hold Him. He did not remain in the grave, but rose again, as the firstborn from the dead, and one day He will come again to undo our deaths as well.

On the contrary, atheism offers no such hope. Atheism must say to the 14-year-old “Even if we find a cure for your cancer in time, you will still suffer and eventually die.” That is it. There is no redemption of the brokenness, no great un-telling of the stories — just suffering and eternal death.

Tim Keller, in his book “The Reason for God” sums up the Christian position quite nicely:

Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He cries, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer of Christianity to that question is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost. (pg. 33)

Where is your God now? He is not here, but He has risen. He has ascended bearing the marks of His passion and He will return in the same way He left. And when He comes again, we will not have to ask “Was it worth it?”

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12 Comments

Filed under Apologetics, Christology, Theology

12 responses to “Where is your God now?

  1. Doesn’t this response imply moral agnosticism? If God might have a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil that we are unable to see, then how do we know what is really good and what is really evil? Maybe we shouldn’t intervene to help a child who has cancer, because God might have some greater plan that crucially depends on the child dying painfully of cancer.

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    • I don’t see how it would. Just because God can and will redeem all suffering in the future, it doesn’t logically follow that we ought not work to amend suffering now. God knew Lazarus would die again when He raised him from the dead.

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      • That is a different response to the problem of evil than I interpreted you as making in the original post. Regardless, the problem with saying that God will redeem all suffering in the future is that it doesn’t explain why God allowed any suffering in the first place. Any end God might want to achieve through suffering could equally well be achieved without suffering, since God is omnipotent. Achieving the same end through needless suffering would be immoral for an omnipotent being.

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      • Assuming that suffering is needless. I don’t know that it is, and given Christ crucified I don’t know why I should consider any suffering gratuitous.

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      • Now you’re switching back to skeptical theism, which I addressed in my first comment. You need to stick with one response to the problem of evil. Is all suffering going to be redeemed in the future, as you suggest in this comment, or do we not know why God allows suffering, as you suggested in your previous comment and the OP?

        Anyway, as I said, if God has unknown morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, then moral agnosticism follows. We can never know whether we should intervene to help someone suffering, because God might have an unknown important plan that depends on that suffering.

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      • It’s not mutually exclusive. All evil and suffering have been redeemed in the Cross. If we don’t understand the point of particular sufferings, we know, because of Christ’s suffering, that it is not unnecessary.

        Nor does moral agnosticism as you’ve defined it here necessarily follow. If God’s plan depends on that suffering, our intervention will be thwarted, as Peter’s intervention was thwarted in the Garden when God’s plan depended on Christ’s suffering and death. If God gives us commands to love and serve our neighbors, we know what He expects of us. Sometimes our neighbors will die in spite of our best efforts. The OP is a way of understanding this.

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      • It is clearly irrelevant to whether or not a particular case of suffering is unnecessary that Christ died on the cross. For example, the 2011 Tohoku tsunami killed thousands of people for no apparent reason. The fact that Christ died on the cross has no bearing on the fact that the 2011 Tohoku tsunami was a terrible event that does not seem to have brought about any greater good.

        The claim that any action that attempts to alter God’s plan will be thwarted seems arbitrary in light of the fact that the Bible describes God as having his plans thwarted by human action multiple times, most notably when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden.

        In any event, your claim that God prevents actions that would interfere with his plans leads to a dilemma. Does God prevent all evil actions or does he just prevent a subset of evil actions? If God prevents us from doing anything that is evil, then that implies that everything anyone manages to do is good, which is inconsistent with traditional Christianity. On the other hand, if you mean that God only prevents us from doing certain evil things, then we are back to not knowing whether or not we should interfere with any given apparent evil.

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      • The fact that Christ died on the cross means that those who died in the 2011 tsunami are not permanently lost, and even though we cannot see why God would allow it, that doesn’t mean He doesn’t have a good reason.

        Could you explain why you think that moral agnosticism follows necessarily? I don’t quite understand your assertion that it does. It seems that given Christ’s commands to love our neighbor, and the revelation of the Law, we know what a good work is and so we do them. If our good works somehow fail, as in the child who ultimately succumbs to cancer, then we know that God’s death has redeemed her death. But this knowledge is not at odds with the knowledge that God asks us to do good works in the first place.

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      • Moral agnosticism follows because some of the evils we observe are actually God’s means to a greater good, on your view. So, since we can’t tell which evils these are, we can’t know whether or not to intervene to prevent a given evil. Adding the belief that God has told us to do good works doesn’t help, because we can’t tell which works are good and which are not, on your view.

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      • Two problems: The first with your claim, and the second with your objection.

        First, you claim that because some of the evils we observe are actually God’s means to a greater good we can’t tell whether or not to intervene. I think you’ve falsely assumed that God is causing these evils rather than allowing them to happen. God is not initiating evils as a primary means, but redeeming them as a secondary means. This is why moral agnosticism doesn’t follow: The bad is still bad, even if God makes something good happen in spite of it.

        The second problem: We can tell exactly which works are good because God has shown them to us in the Law.

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  2. Julia

    Another thought why the “it’s because of sin” argument is that it presents Sin as an unconquerable power, equal to God that wreaks havoc on the people while many times in the old Testament, God often says that he destroys and restores. Even when he speaks to Job in Job 38 – 42, God talks about his destructive power as well. By resorting to that argument, we say that suffering is not part of God’s plan when it is.

    Sin is not unconquerable – Jesus has already triumphed. That was the answer God gave to Job and that was the hope presented on the cross – that this world can be righted.

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