Tim Keller and the Problem of Suffering and Evil

Christian theology has wrestled since its inception with the problem of evil. Generally speaking, they believe that God is a being who is completely good, who is everywhere present all the time, who has all power, and who knows everything that has ever happened and everything that ever will.  In other words he is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Well, that last one is debatable, depending on whether or not you are a Calvinist, in which case you may believe God’s intentions toward all humanity are NOT benevolent, because some people God hates.  But let’s not get off on that part just yet.

The best way I know to explain this problem is by supposing you were present to witness a crime, something awful like a child molestation or a mass murder. Suppose you also had the means to stop this terrible thing from happening but chose to sit back and watch the whole thing unfold.  Assuming for the moment that you could have intervened at any point without endangering yourself in any way, what would it say about you if you chose to do nothing at all?

In essence that is the problem of evil for the Christian faith. Christians are taught that God could intervene at any point he chooses to change the events of history. In fact the biblical record tells of many such interventions, both in important national affairs as well as in tiny insignificant personal issues like curing an illness, making an axhead float, or keeping the wine flowing at a wedding. And yet, despite the fact that this version of God could step in at any given point, he so clearly chooses not to step in during such calamitous events that it forces us to ask how any loving, benevolent being with the power to stop the world’s atrocities could manage to stay uninvolved, or at least remain undetectable throughout the unfolding of events.

It’s as if he’s not even there. Like Julia Sweeney once said in her entertaining monologue, Letting Go of God:

The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.

In a nutshell, that is the problem of evil, and it remains an unsolved dilemma for the Christian faith.  In chapter two of The Reason for God, Tim Keller attempts to address this problem because in any appeal to nonbelievers you have to address it at some point or another.  This logical inconsistency accounts for one of the most common reasons people give for why they can’t believe in the Christian God.

I was somewhat disappointed to see Keller devote fewer pages to covering this topic (commonly referred to as the theodicy problem) than he did any other topic in the book. But then I remembered Keller himself is a Calvinist, and they don’t feel that humans really need an explanation for the moral behavior of God.  In essence Keller’s response to this question focuses on explaining to you, the reader, that you are in no position to judge the rightness or wrongness of his theology because you are not God.  Not a very satisfying approach, I’m afraid.  But let’s look at what he said, and at what he didn’t say.

The Free Will Argument

Most people I know usually resolve this dilemma to their own satisfaction by suggesting that God had to create humans with free will so that they wouldn’t merely be like robots, unable to love him back.  C.S. Lewis champions this explanation in The Case for Christianity:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right…If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible.

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating.

Most versions of Christian theology teach that once upon a time God created beings that simply followed orders—the angels.  I remember asking why God didn’t just stop after he created the angels because, come on, those are fantastic, right?  I mean think about it. They glow, they fly, they can go back and forth between heaven and earth. And best of all, they’re organized in military ranks (just read any book on Christian angelology, which is actually a thing), so they just follow orders, which means you don’t have to wonder if they will do as they are told. Why didn’t God just stop after he had made those? Why go on to make something else so prone to error and rebellion and weakness as human beings?  I was told it was because God wanted creatures who could freely choose to follow him and to love him, which was something the angels could not do. That’s why he had to go a step further and create humans.

But hold on a second.  If angels aren’t free to rebel, then how do you account for the existence of this Lucifer creature? And doesn’t Christian theology also teach that he took something like a third of all the angels with him to be his minions in his cosmic coup to take over the creation?  I smell a glaring inconsistency here.  If God had to make humans because the angels weren’t free moral agents capable of loving him back, then how could 33% of them have rebelled against him? And if they’re really free, then can’t they simply choose to return at some point if they wish?  For that matter, is Lucifer not free to change his mind back again?  And if he’s not free, then does that mean he is under the control of someone else, merely doing his bidding?

Throughout this book, Keller draws heavily on C.S. Lewis for his arguments defending the Christian faith. So much so, in fact, that many have complained that this book is just the reheated leftovers of Mere Christianity, with slightly updated language. I found that to be true in some places, but this is one of the rare instances in which Keller’s Reformed theology diverges widely from Lewis’s Anglo-Catholic proclivities.  Keller never really picks up the free will argument because his theological system understands all actions of people and planets to follow the will of their creator. For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to suggest that’s closer to the way the Bible talks about the matter.

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

Shut Up, That’s Why

Like a good Calvinist, Keller’s own treatment of this question begins with telling you that you have no right to say what is and isn’t “good.”

Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless.

This reasoning is, of course, fallacious. Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. (p.23)

He goes on to give examples of how people go through hard things like cancer treatments and digestive illnesses only to gain strength of character or other intangible benefits from the suffering they endured. It certainly is a testament to the indomitable nature of the human will that we are so capable of finding ways to turn our losses into gains.  But what happens when you pull the camera back to take in larger issues, including the kinds of suffering which bring no ostensible benefit whatsoever?

When famines, diseases, tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes kill hundreds of thousands, what positive benefit do you see to humanity coming out of that? What benefit to the Jewish people do you see coming out of the senseless and systematic murder of six million at the hands of Nazi Germany? That last example particularly stings because, according to the biblical narrative, these people were to be the beneficiaries of special provision and protection by God, and yet I can scarcely think of a single ethnic group which has been on the receiving end of a more persistent string of persecution, mistreatment, and even genocide.

Incidentally, World War II was a turning point for just about everybody’s theological system, including the one Keller inherited. For example, his Reformed tradition used to sport a much larger contingent of Christian triumphalists. It used to be far more popular among Calvinists (e.g. Edwards, Whitefield, Warfield and the Hodges) to hold the postmillennial view of eschatology, which imagined the world becoming more and more aligned with Christian teachings until crime and war all but vanish from the earth. After two world wars and the Holocaust, however, that view quickly disappeared from most theological subcultures save for a handful of “Christian reconstructionists” like Ted Cruz‘s father and who knows how many men currently occupying political offices in Washington today.

What galls me about Keller’s initial response to this question is the dismissive way he insinuates that human beings—whom he claims are made in the image of God and who therefore have an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong—cannot judge for themselves when something is unjust.  But you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t say that humans can be held responsible for knowing good from evil only to turn around and say that we cannot know the difference between the two.

In the end this is what we call “gaslighting,” which happens whenever you try to undermine someone’s sense of injustice by questioning their ability to discern for themselves between what is good and what is evil.  That’s essentially how the Bible rationalizes the story of Job, in which one guy loses everything dear to him solely on a bet between God and the devil. When Job demands an answer from God as to why he had to endure so many things being taken away, God’s response was essentially,”Shut up, that’s why.”

According to this line of argumentation, if you’re not God, you don’t get to evaluate events, period. End of discussion. According to Keller, only an omniscient being gets to say what’s good and what’s not. And of course implicit within that assertion is the assumption that we have at our disposal an unerring method of knowing what that being thinks about things. That assumption alone demands a multivolume defense, of course, but all we will be getting in this book is a single circular argument in chapter seven, which I will address in turn when the time comes.

The bottom line here is that it does precious little good to dismiss the sincere questioning of a skeptic looking for reasons to accept one deity over another (or over none at all) by simply saying you would have to be God to get to ask or answer that question.  You are appealing to a category which the questioner doesn’t believe even exists.  Only a theist could derive any satisfaction from such an answer, and that’s supposedly not Keller’s target audience in the first place.

Asking the Wrong Question 

In a way it is misleading to frame this question around the notion of “evil,” which is already a loaded word for Christians.  It’s stacking the deck in a direction that’s favorable to the argument they intend to construct.  Once again, Keller turns to C.S. Lewis:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”?…What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too…

As I explain above, it is actually the theist’s argument which collapses upon itself the moment they say that humans cannot say what is and isn’t just, because they just got finished saying that we could. But even the framing of this discussion around a moral evaluation privileges the religious apologist in a way that keeps this from being a level discussion.  One doesn’t have to appeal to “justice,” which is an exceedingly slippery term to debate under the circumstances in question.  One could also appeal to whether or not the world as we find it appears to have anyone in control of it at all.

They say the absence of evidence isn’t always evidence of absence.  And they’re correct, with at least one glaring exception. If evidence for something is supposed to be everywhere, then the absence of such becomes a relevant detail. If one is evaluating a system that makes positive claims about something—call them promises or expectations, whatever—then it is fair game to evaluate that system based on whether or not those claims seem to accurately account for what happens in the end.  And I’m suggesting that an inductive look into the events of the world—and even into the evolution of life as we know it—suggests that nothing and no one is guiding this mess in any direction whatsoever.

Again, to quote Sweeney, “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would if there were no Supreme Being.”  It doesn’t have to be about injustice. It could also be about disorder, about randomness, and about the world moving in directions that don’t track with the way in which the ideology in question claims it would move.  Let me see if I can illustrate what I mean.

Suppose Child Protective Services walks into a home to find the home in extreme disarray.  They find critters crawling on top of piles and piles of garbage, discarded food containers, broken glass, and leaky walls with giant holes in them.  Suppose they also see small children running around with insufficient clothing including naked toddlers who clearly haven’t been potty trained leaving behind trails of feces and urine everywhere they sit.  Are there adults who live in this home?  Is anyone in charge here?  In circumstances such as this, it falls to the agents of the state to determine if anyone is fulfilling the role of adult in these children’s lives, and the actual presence of an adult isn’t enough by itself.  They have to actually be doing the job of the grown-up or else they may soon be out of that job.

In a way, this is what we see when we look at the world around us. It looks very much as if no one is in charge of this thing at all. Eddie Izzard famously says, “If there is a God, his plan is very similar to someone not having a plan.”


In other words, it’s not just about justice or injustice. Those are loaded categories which Christian theologians feel entitled to claim as their own.  It’s also about order and disorder. It’s about looking for evidence that someone or something is truly guiding things in any discernible direction at all (and no, simply citing that physics exists doesn’t count as an argument for design).  The person intent on finding intelligence behind it all will most likely find it there, because he must.  But some of us came to this question with minds just open enough to allow for the possibility that we may not find what we want to find. I would wager most of us who did that came away far less confident that anyone or anything is behind all of this.

Special Pleading and the Suffering of Jesus on the Cross

Finally, Keller turns to what he seems to believe is the clincher in this discussion, claiming that Jesus somehow suffered far worse things than any other human being ever experienced before or since, and that somehow that make the problem of suffering seem like less of a problem. The most obvious difficulty there is that it’s no use dismissing or minimizing catastrophic human losses and injustices by comparing them to other tragedies. That’s called that the fallacy of relative privation, and it’s not a very persuasive strategy.  Keller seems unaware of this, so he offers this redirection:

In Jesus Christ, God experienced the greatest depths of pain. Therefore, though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair. (p.27-28)

But wait a minute. Assuming for the sake of argument that Jesus was a real person and that he did indeed get killed the way the Bible says he got killed (two assumptions, I might add, which atheists are increasingly rejecting with each passing year), was the death of Jesus really the most horrific or painful death any human being has ever experienced?  He was arrested, tried, and killed within less than a 24 hour time period.  In fact, if my math is correct, he most likely suffered for less than 12 hours on a Friday, and then died, after which he would have felt nothing.

People have died in far worse ways than this. In fact, I’m pretty sure many suffered more brutal torture than this at the hands of the Church during the medieval days of the Spanish Inquisition. But is suffering a painful death over a single Friday any worse than undergoing years of chemotherapy, or dying from cancer?  Is it worse than watching your own child suffer chronic or even terminal illness?  Honestly I can think of hundreds of fates worse than a few hours of torture ending in death on the same day. But somehow this particular death is supposed to be worse than others. Why?

Keller suggests that we must see an additional dynamic at play in the death of Jesus—a secondary layer on top of the usual human plane to account for an infinitely heavier burden.

The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment. (p.30)

Here is where I have to stop and point out that this book purports to speak to nonbelievers, at some point giving them reasons to believe in one particular theistic construction, perhaps after first addressing a number of objections or obstacles to belief.  But does it really make sense to make the above point to a group of people who don’t believe there is a “spiritual” dynamic at play in the first place?  Surely you aren’t expecting to persuade metaphysical naturalists that the death of Jesus was special because God was abandoning him before you’ve even established reasons for them which convince them such a deity even exists?  Does that make any sense at all? A little earlier on the same page he declares:

Christian theology has always recognized that Jesus bore, as the substitute in our place, the endless exclusion from God that the human race has merited. (p.29-30)

Wait a second…endless exclusion?  What is he arguing now?  Is he suggesting that somehow God crammed an eternity of suffering into the 12 hours that Jesus suffered before he died? Or is he suggesting that in the 36 hours between his death on Friday afternoon and sunrise on Sunday morning Jesus “descended into hell” as one old Catholic creed suggests? Even from a biblical standpoint that is a tenuous case to make (find me the verses that establish this claim). But it’s even more pointless to posit that as an argument for the benefit of people who don’t think such a thing as hell even exists.

It Is Too Much, Let Me Sum Up

In the end this chapter on the problem of suffering suffers from a couple of key weaknesses:

1) Gaslighting isn’t a valid strategy for convincing nonbelievers of anything.  If you look back at each of the three main points I’ve addressed above, each one of them responds to the problem of evil and suffering by suggesting that you have no right to say if something is good or bad, or if a particular kind of suffering is excessive or purposeless.

First he suggests you would have to be an omniscient being in order to definitively say if a particular kind of suffering or tragedy is truly pointless, which effectively dismisses the question altogether.  Then he does the same for the person determining if something is just or unjust. Then finally he minimizes all other pain and loss throughout history by claiming that Jesus suffered a worse death than anyone else will ever know, which is far from a settled matter.

2) It does little good to attempt to persuade nonbelievers of something by referencing a plane of existence which they would have to already agree with you in order to believe exists.  What good would it do to tell us we would have to be omniscient if we don’t think omniscience is even a real possibility?  And what good does it do to assure us that Jesus had it far worse than anyone else because he experienced the pain of sin and separation from God—hypothetically an eternity of separation somehow “inceptioned” into a 36 hour period—if we don’t already believe either of those things even exists?

These are the kinds of weaknesses which I often find in the presuppositionalist approach to apologetics.  Because they’ve resigned themselves to the idea that the claims of Christianity are inescapably circular, they cannot seem to avoid appealing to their own prior beliefs in order to support the beliefs they are asking us to accept, never fully acknowledging that we would have no reason to do that unless we had already been convinced that their belief system is right.

They seem unable to hear their own arguments through the ears of someone not already inside their club, therefore their approach is ineffective. But then that’s not always a concern of theirs, I’ve discovered. Once I asked a presupper why he continued to preach at people instead of truly trying to use reason to persuade people that his views were correct, and he replied that it wasn’t his responsibility to do that, it was God’s.  In other words, no matter how few people ever came over to his side, he had no ability to evaluate or alter his methods because he was already convinced his ways were right. God himself would have to tell him to do different, and luckily for him, no such command has ever come.

This circularity problem will come up again and again throughout the book, and I’ll be sure to point it out whenever I see it.

As I mentioned before, Steve Shives has covered this entire book, taking on two chapters of this book at a time in his “An Atheist Reads” series, so be sure to check that out here if you’d like to think about these things some more.

And if you’d like to read my coverage of the previous chapters, you can find that here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

[Featured Image: The Telegraph


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