Wednesday, January 20, 2010

God and The Problem of Pain, Evil and Suffering

One of the five talks I'll be giving at Plymouth University in February is on the subject of suffering. To help me prepare I've been digging into the way that other apologists have approached the task. I've been feeding my heart from Richard Sibbes' The Bruised Reed. For time reasons I limited myself to five approaches, three books and two mp3s....

Nicky Gumbel - Suffering (chapter 1, Searching Issues).
The Alpha Course
This is the number one objection to Christianity. Suffering is experienced globally, in our communities and individually. It's not a problem for all religions but it does arise in Christianity because Christians say God is good.
1) Human Freedom (or the free will defence), it's our sin or the sin of others that directly or indirectly causes much suffering, the rest is probably due to the fallen nature of the world.
2) God works through suffering - to draw us to Christ, to bring Christian maturity and to bring about his good purposes e.g. Joseph.
3) God more than compensates for suffering. God has all eternity to make it up to us.
4) God is involved in our suffering - the story of Joni Earekson Tada and The Long Silence.
How will we respond to the suffering in our lives. Ask if it's because of my sin? What is God saying through this? What does God want me to do in this? And then hold onto hope - suffering is an alien intrusion into God's world.
The Cross fits with all of this. Human sin put Jesus on the cross. We see God working through the suffering of the cross of Jesus. See at the cross Jesus dies for the joy ahead of him. See God come into our suffering at the cross.

Michael Ots - "Rape, child abuse and AIDS- What kind of God doesn't prevent suffering?" (chapter 3, What Kind of God?)
Michael Ots Evangelism Trust
We begin with examples of suffering which aren't just statistics they're personal to us. If we deny God's existence we don't necessarily deal with the problem - does atheism have a better answer? Should we deny God's goodness?
1) God allows suffering - a more nuanced form of 'free will' argument than Gumbel. God gives us a choice which makes our life real, unlike The Truman Show. We ask, who is to blame? Is it a manufacturing fault (no), or misuse by the owner (yes).
2) God will end the suffering - we can talk about getting rid of the bad guys but where do you draw the line? We are in danger but God is patient.
3) God has experienced suffering - not just empathy but acting to do something about it, and so suffering isn't the end of the story.

Tim Keller - How could a good God allow suffering (chapter 2, The Reason for God)
Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York
1) Evil and suffering isn't evidence against God - just because we can't see a reason why he should permit suffering doesn't mean there isn't one - e.g. Joseph.
2) Evil and suffering may be (if anything) evidence for God. God came to earth not to get himself off the hook but to put himself on it.
We should ask why Jesus suffering seems to be worse than other people's? Jesus is introduced as the one who was always in the bosom of the Father but at the end of his life he is cut off. We see God with us in our suffering at the cross, and the resurrection promises consolation and restoration. Sam Gamgee - "is everything sad going to come untrue?", Dostoevsky "suffering will be healed and made up for", Lewis: "heaven...will work backwards and turn even that agony into glory".

William Lane Craig - Cambridge Lecture in The Reasonable Faith Tour.
MP3 from
It's a big step to abandon God over any objection. The issue is two-fold, partly intellectual and philosophical, partly personal and pastoral.
1) The Logical Problem. We can't see how a good God would permit suffering but the objection exposes our own hidden premises about God.
2) The Probablistic Problem. It just seems unlikely that God would allow suffering.
a) But we're not in a good position to judge things - think about the butterfly effect or the film Sliding Doors, who can tell what's good in the long run?
b) Christian doctrine makes it more probable that you can have God and evil in the world. i) Life isn't for our happiness but for knowing God. ii) Our rebellion makes us more culpable and we're given over to our evil. iii) Knowledge of God spills over to eternal life. iv) Knowledg eof God is good, incomparably better than suffering.
3) There are other reasons to believe in God even if suffering is a hard one to swallow.
We end with a brief 'pastoral' response that expounds the Trinity and the cross as the explanation of how God is not the problem to be got rid of, but the solution to the problem.

Andrew Wilson - Why does God allow suffering or evil?
MP3 from Grace Church, Chichester
Evil and suffering feels wrong - if the atheists are right we shouldn't blink. We want God to stop people from doing evil. Genesis 3 - a story about a piece of fruit? Not eating isn't the first command (that's have sex and go travelling) to people God makes in his image. And the issue isn't the fruit, it's not a petty rule like not walking on the grass.
1) We ran off with another woman - sin is an affair, a breaking not of legal restriction but relational.
2) We threw off the safety of that relationship - nakedness becomes a problem. We end up having to compare and climb and this causes a lot of suffering.
3) We wrecked it by trying to be God - we abdicated responsibility and everything has gone wrong. "What just happened?!" - it wasn't always like this, it's not meant to be, and one day it wont be. We said "I did it my way" and it ruins things.  Until the image of God is restored it's ruined. God comes to us to do that - to overcome physical and spiritual death and make the affair right, securing us from nakedness to be sons of God.

1. I found Gumbel and Wilson very helpful on how out of place suffering is - that it feels so wrong is a positive things. It is alien, and it makes us cry out "what just happened?". The Dawkins "pitiless indifference" answer is unsatisfying.
2. Wilson's was the only one doing an exposition of the Bible and this was helpful - by contrast Craig was almost all philosophy which was also good and in a lecture setting probably appropriate. The other three had similar approaches from present problems through some points and ending with the cross & resurrection which are vital to understand suffering, consolation and restoration.
3. The logical problem comes from who we think God is - when we begin with attributes it is difficult to resolve because we attach so many assumptions to saying "God is good" and almost rule God out by definition. If we speak of the Triune God and what he is like then it's probably easier, and more obvious to speak of God coming into our suffering.
4. Given I'll have 15 minutes plus Q&A I'm really going to have to select what to say carefully. Michael Ots chapters are based on such talks so give me a good idea of what's possible. I'm also aware that in person I want to approach the topic at least as much pastorally as intellectually.

In case you were tempted to think the issue isn't one people are asking about... BBC publishes philosopher David Bain's thoughts... "But, as for those who believe in an all-good, all-powerful agent-God, we've seen that they face a question that remains pressing after all these centuries, and which is now horribly underscored by the horrors in Haiti. If a deity exists, why didn't he prevent this?"