On Suffering: Should We Be Atheists Because We Suffer?

On Suffering: Should We Be Atheists Because We Suffer? March 13, 2014


What is the Christian response to suffering? This is the second in a series, and the first post is here. People often ask, “How can a good God allow evil?”  We can approach the question from a number of directions, and before I continue, let me observe: Sometimes people who ask that question are really saying something else.

What they mean is:

  • This hurts.
  • I feel like I am completely alone.
  • I just want this nightmare to end.
  • Help me.

General rule: If you are at a funeral home, hospital bed, or crime scene, this is not the time to launch into a catechism lesson.  Shut up and make yourself useful for a change.

But let’s say it is a catechism lesson that the questioner wants.  One way to find an answer is to flip the question around.

What Can Suffering Tell Us About God?

Evil happens.  Sickness, death, natural disasters.  Lyme disease. Crocodiles. Rape, murder, incest.  Genocide.  Pillaging and burning.  Bad things happen all the time, very bad things happen some of the time, and at least one bad thing (death) happens to everybody.  What we believe about God does not change these facts.  But these facts lead us to one of several possible conclusions about God.

1. There is no God? Maybe we’re just very unlucky.  We’ve been born into some random universe, created by nobody at no time, and things just happen.  The fact that we’re even bothered by it all is just a random fluke of nature, and nature is nothing, really.  It’s all just there.  No reason.  No cause.

The lack of a cause for the existence of anything is a bit of sticking point, logically, but the suffering isn’t.  We could have been born into a randomly good, perfectly happy un-caused universe.  If it were possible for there to be no God, suffering would have nothing to do with it. Questions about the existence of God must lie elsewhere than in wondering about suffering.

2. There’s an all-powerful god, and he hates us? This is a pretty obvious explanation for suffering, because it matches both the logic of existence — something or someone must have created this place — and it matches the facts of life: Cold, brutish, and short. It’s not a very hopeful outlook, unless the god who hates us has an ounce of mercy and lets us lie peacefully in our graves after we’ve been toyed with enough.  Lie low, try not to make the god angry, and hope he gets distracted and leaves you alone? Or try to appease his bloodlust?  I suppose if this is all you’ve got, it’s all you got.  But there’s evidence for a more hopeful reality.

3. There’s a good god, but he’s not all-powerful, and he’s got competition. You might have been created by the good god, the good god might be rooting for you.  Or not.  But, sorry, your god has his limits.  He can only do so much for you.  You can be hopeful that maybe the good god at least can manage the afterlife half-decently, but you won’t know until you get there.  If this is your belief, you’ve got lots of company, historically speaking.  It does line up fairly well with the evidence we’ve got.  But let’s look at door #4 and see if we can do better.

4. There’s an all-powerful God, and He’s Good and He loves us, but for some weird reason He allows suffering. This is the hardest to get your head around, because though it lines up with the evidence, it leaves us with a paradox: How on earth could a God both good and all-powerful allow suffering?  It can’t be because He’s incapable of stopping it, like the god in #3. It can’t be because He hates us, because that’s god #2 (possibly with a mildly sadistic but not completely horrid bent, but really?).  It can only be because, for some really, really strange reason, it turns out that allowing suffering is for our good.

What father would give his son a snake when he asked for a fish?

Today’s Gospel poses that question: If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. It’s a rhetorical question that assumes decent fathers.  If you grew up with a father who was absent, abusive, or otherwise not doing his job, you may be at a loss with this passage.  Or you may have some inkling of what our Lord is talking about, because you instinctively know that there’s a different way to go about the fathering business, if only because you find you long for something other than what you had.

So let’s talk about what fathers do.  Fathers are notoriously not coddlers. In addition to providing for their children (see fish, loaves of bread, in today’s Gospel) and disciplining their children, fathers give their children a measure of freedom.   Sure, go ahead, climb that tree.  There’s a balance, and a good father will try to lead his child into adulthood with as few broken bones as possible. But there reaches a point where you have to let the kid do his thing and learn the hard way.

God gives us radical freedom.  A freedom so radical that our actions have consequences, even to the point of being able to hurt others.  A freedom so radical that Adam’s & Eve’s actions were capable of breaking the whole world.

The Spoiled Child Paradox

Our tendency is to not want that freedom.  That is, we want the freedom to do whatever we please, but not the freedom for our actions to be able to hurt ourselves and others.  We want the freedom to conform the universe to our demands, but not the freedom that caused the universe to in fact conform itself to the demands of our first mother and father. We want the freedom to pursue happiness, but not the freedom of actually doing the work the pursuit of ultimate happiness requires.

Is the world broken? Yes it is.  Did God break it? No He did not.  We did.  He gave us the keys and we totaled it.

This is not what you wanted to hear.

In our rich fantasy lives, we’d be able to stomp our feet and get a better god.  One who existed, who was all-powerful, all-good, and somehow managed to not give us quite so much freedom.  One who gave us a nice neat pleasant world at no cost, with no risks, no danger.  A cross-free universe.  The problem with the “problem of evil” is that no amount of understanding the problem makes the evil go away.

Understanding lets us be sane.  It lets us know that there is meaning to our suffering. But it doesn’t make the suffering go away.

Hence, up above, the reminder that when someone is suffering, it’s rarely helpful to hand them an essay when they’ve asked for a loaf of bread.

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