Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If God is good, why so much suffering?

I spoke on suffering at Bristol University today. I began with Marcus Brigstocke's quest for god triggered by the death of his best friend James... considered the denial of suffering suggested by the western physical-only and eastern non-physical worldviews that are woefully inadequate... contemplated the horrifying karma approach before turning to the god we see in the face of Jesus, a god like no other god we've ever heard of...   This is the subject I've been asked to speak on most often and its not going away yet - so your feedback and thoughts are very welcome.

mp3: If God is good, why so much suffering? (33mins, inc Q&A)

My Notes 

In the Q&A the following questions arose. I don't think I gave the best answers to them when I was in the room, so here's some "after the event" responses that I wish I'd articulated....

1. Wouldn't an omnipotent god end suffering?
I don't believe in the omnipotent god. I believe in the god revealed by Jesus in person. And this god is powerful and he uses his power against all the suffering, evil and sin in the world not by wielding it but by yielding it. He takes on all that's bad in the world by Jesus dying to put the world to rights. Jesus weakness at the cross is the answer to suffering. Today we don't see the world fully put to rights but his resurrection is the evidence that one day newness is coming.

2. Why create suffering in the first place?
The world was good when it was created, and it's hard to think of suffering as a creatable thing - it's more a decreation, a corruption of things. Why allow that? Because to bring us into the life of god isn't just about us being creatures who associate with god, but means passing through death, seeing all sin and suffering put to death, so that we can be given a new flesh, a new life in god. Death is invented because Jesus had to die.

3. If Jesus suffered for us, shouldn't life now be free from suffering?
This relates to the first question. What's required has been achieved, we just await the fulfillment of it. Why wait? To give people from all over the world the opportunity to come into the life of God. When everything is set right that isn't automatically good news for the human race, because some of us push Jesus away - these days of suffering are days of patience in which we can come into God, and that's a huge price to pay - but a worthwhile price.

This morning I asked some tweeters to help warm me up for the Q&A. They asked me:
However you package it, your God is still responsible for suffering. Why should I believe in the God of cancer, tsunamis & aids? Does God just sit back and watch? Do God actively ordain/will personal suffering for each person? If yes, does this make God evil? A question from Text A Toastie in Bristol last night: If God exists why did he create cancer yet give us the power to cure it? Does God suffer?
Is God sovereign in our suffering? Does that mean it is His will for us to suffer?  I  read re Noah & was inspired thinking re the alternative to how God does it now - what would you prefer, forgiveness or flood?
I wont answer them here now, but I think having thought about them slipped into the talk at various points. So thanks team - you helped me and shaped the talk!

13 comments:

  1. To be provocative...

    If you do not believe in El Shaddai, and God only "allow[s]" suffering, instead of actively punishing people and curbing sin by causing it in some way (you never mention that, although its the Bible's first answer to the question - albeit not the final one), are you in danger of presenting a God who offers too little?

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  2. I think you're right, talk of justice, of punishment for evil done is something I called for but didn't then develop further. That would be worth talking about.

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  3. Ravi Zacharias offers some useful thoughts on the subject. He is intelligent but sensitive, academic but not aloof - very good for curious students:

    http://rwandanreflections.blogspot.com/

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  4. Sean and Emma,

    Ravi generally is excellent - anything particularly helpful to you? Or that engages with anything in the post? Be great for pushing conversation forward.

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  5. Well it's really hard to pick any particular point out because a lot of the points he makes are so solid! A big one though is his point that as soon as people ask how can a good God exist when there is blatant evil and immorality, they are begging the question, and, inadvertently positing God's existence. This may infuriate atheists because that's not the conclusion they're wanting! Nonetheless, if people are serious about grappling with this issue, it has to be addressed.

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  6. watch the video on my blog if you have a spare moment - he covers in an interview his take on the issue

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  7. Off topic: for just a second there I thought that picture was of Matt Herring! Must be the hair...?

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  8. It's a hard job being an apologist, so I have a great deal of respect for those like you who do it for a job.

    Shortly after my interaction here I had a very busy few days, including meeting up with an old friend who doesn't believe Jesus. We had a long discussion which covered a lot about God's fairness in suffering/punishment. I don't think I presented Christ as I should have done at all. It may sound like a cop-out to say that "The job of the Christian apologist is to make that question harder to answer, not easier", but its actually really hard. You either make it seem obvious that God causes suffering because he's a malicious tyrant, or he's a well-wisher who's got nothing to do with hell/suffering. And the answer is not the middle road, it's preaching Christ crucified for us under God's wrath and raised to life for us by a Father's love for his Son.

    What I'm trying to say is that I know it is easy to comment on blogs, but harder to do the job. I'm good at the former, but not the later.

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  9. It is hard, and you rarely get the time to say everything... so you have to make some choices to say certain things. FWIW I think you're spot on that the apologist should help suffering to seem worse, the western materialist, eastern non-physical approach and any karma-style approach tries to find an easy answer and is insufficient.

    I definitely leant in one direction with this talk, I think I'd want to hit more of the justice in future - I think I made suffering harder but I'm not sure I quite got to where I might have gone with that.

    We're all learning.

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  10. What did you think of Ravi's treatment as an apologist on the subject? Helpful?

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  11. The hardest question I know related to suffering is this: imagine the person who is born into a situation of terrible suffering in a place where they never get to hear the gospel, live in unremitting misery, then die and are separated from God forever. In what sense is it possible to speak about God being love in regard to them? This describes a LOT of people.

    You are right to want to make it hard not easy, not least of all because too many people think that Christians don't concern themselves with suffering enough and only offer trivial answers. One of the difficulties with the suffering question is that you can resolve it by positing that God is powerful but isn't love. Which seems to be one of the main things that is being thrown at Christians at the moment - "the God you claim to believe in probably doesn't exist, but if he does he is necessarily a monster because of the existence of suffering." As one of your tweeters said "however you package it, your God is still responsible for suffering", either by commission or by inaction.

    We have to be able to answer that thoughtfully

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