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?”