Sermon: The Problem of God and Suffering

Preaching Text: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Of all the objections to Christianity there’s none more time-honored than the question of why an all-knowing, all-loving God allows evil and suffering. Either God is not good, the argument goes, or not powerful enough to end such hardships.

In Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, he quotes a young man who, after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, said: “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways.”

Keller’s response, at first blush, seems a bit counterintuitive, yet it follows a long tradition within Christianity of something called “theodicy,” wherein we human beings put God on trial for not fitting into our understandings of how life ought to be.

To this point, Keller writes: “If evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless.” He then adds, “If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then there can’t be any.”

He then cites one of the passages we heard this morning from Genesis. In it, Joseph, after being left for dead by his brothers in a jealous rage, forgives his siblings and tells them that it was God who was the author of these events!

As horrible as this sounds to us, the writer of the first book of the Bible understands Joseph’s plight as the preamble to his becoming prime minister of Egypt, thereby enabling him to save thousands of lives while preventing his own family from starvation.

Is such thinking altogether outlandish? After all, most of us, I suspect, have gone through difficult and painful experiences in life only to discover in hindsight their ultimate value and worth. People often say that even illnesses (again in hindsight) functioned as an “irreplaceable season of personal and spiritual growth.” As proof, Keller cites his own battle with cancer as well as his wife’s with Crohn’s Disease.

He goes on to tell of a man in his congregation who was left virtually blind after a drug deal gone bad. The suffering caused by this eventually led to a complete change in the man’s life.

“As my physical eyes were closed,” he tells Keller, “my spiritual eyes were opened.”

Suffering thus can lead to insight, character, and strength. In time, we may see good reasons for at least some of the tragedies and pain in our lives.

Related to this, there’s another angle to this problem of questioning God about evil and suffering that’s far less obvious. And it has to do with the unconscious vantage point from which we judge God.

C.S. Lewis once argued that suffering is even more of a problem for non-believers! His reasoning? If we judge the universe as “cruel and unjust,” we must ask ourselves where we got this idea in the first place. From where does the concept of “injustice” come?

Modern thinking, Keller points out, is based on “fair play and justice.” We believe people ought not to suffer, or be excluded, or die of hunger or oppression.

The modern scientific view, however, says the universe is the product of natural evolution. “But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak – these things are all perfectly natural.”

“On what basis, then,” Keller asks, “does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust?”

“If you are sure that this natural world is unjust and filled with evil, you are assuming the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard by which to make your judgment.” What, in other words, is the basis for saying that things are supposed to be different?

Something Keller doesn’t go into is that the very categories of criticism we contemporary Westerners employ to question God and the universe are the very categories the ancients would never have considered.

The Stoics, for instance, in keeping with ancient thought, believed that to live was to suffer. That’s just the way things are. For the Stoics that meant you either fought against life’s inevitable pain, only to be miserable, or you accepted it to find as much happiness as you could. Pre-Jewish humanity, in other words, would never have thought to blame the gods for life’s cruelties.

It’s ironic, then, that those of us who lift up Christianity’s problem with evil and suffering do so without realizing that we are employing the very concepts gained from the Judeo-Christian belief system!

In the end, Keller concludes, tragedy, suffering, and injustice are a problem for everyone. And though Christianity does not provide the reason for each experience of pain, it does offer “resources for facing suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair.”

As it is, Christianity alone claims that God became uniquely and fully human, and “therefore [God] knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment.”

And the absolute worst of human suffering is the loss of relationship. Even the loss of a friend, lover, parent, etc. cannot compare with “the loss of the eternal love of God.” On the cross, Jesus “staggers” before this “cosmic abandonment” from God.

What this means in practical terms is that the God of Christianity “identifies” with the “abandoned and godforsaken.”

“We still don’t know [why there’s suffering],” Keller says, “but it can’t be because God is indifferent or detached from our condition…God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”

Thus, Christians can know “deep consolation and strength to face the brutalities of life on earth.” We can know, in other words, “Immanuel” – God with us – even in our worst sufferings.

And yet we need something more than just knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is not in vain. In this Christianity offers the “fact” of the resurrection.

It may surprise us to hear that the Bible does not offer a future that is an “immaterial paradise,” but a “new heaven and a new earth.” In Revelation 21, “people are not taken out of the world into heaven, but rather heaven [comes] down…cleansing, renewing, and perfecting this material world.”

In contrast, secularity argues that there is no restoration after death or history. Eastern religions claim that we lose our individuality and return to the great All-soul, meaning that our lives here on earth are gone forever. Even those religions that offer eternal paradise consider it a “consolation for the losses and pain of this life and all the joys that might have been.”

“The biblical view of things,” in contrast, “is resurrection – not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life [we] always wanted.”

“All the horrors of this life not only will be undone and repaired but will make the eventual glory and joy even greater.”

Keller recounts a dream he once had wherein everyone in his family dies. Upon waking, he realizes it’s just a nightmare. His joy is immense.

“My love for them was only greater for my having lost them and found them again,” he writes.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s character, Sam Gamgee believes his friend Gandolf has died. Eventually he discovers he’s alive, and Gamgee says in joyous amazement: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

In the resurrection, Christianity claims that our lives will be “somehow greater for having once been broken and lost.” In the resurrection not only is “profound consolation” experienced in the face of current suffering, but it instills in us “a powerful hope.”

Keller closes his chapter with two quotes from two of best Christian minds:

“I believe like a child,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky, “that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

Finally, C.S. Lewis: “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” Amen.