Existence of God (part 35)

June 20, 2011     Time: 00:23:47


The Problem of Suffering and Evil.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VII. Problem Of Suffering And Evil
Lecture 5

We are talking about the probabilistic version of the problem of suffering, and my third response to this problem was that, given the existence of the Christian God, the suffering in the world really isn’t all that improbable. If the Christian God exists, this increases the probability of the coexistence of God and suffering in the world.

I mentioned four Christian doctrines which, if true, would greatly increase the probability that the world would have suffering in it. The first of those was that the purpose of life is not happiness but rather the knowledge of God. Much of the suffering in the world may be utterly pointless, utterly unnecessary, if you think that the goal of life is human happiness. But it may not be unnecessary if God’s goal is to build His kingdom and to draw men and women freely into an eternal relationship with Himself. In fact, we saw, when you read contemporary books on missiology, that it is precisely in those nations of the world that are suffering the greatest deprivation and war and famine and poverty that the growth in the rates of evangelical Christianity is the highest, whereas, in the indulgent Western world (Western Europe and North America), the growth rates are almost flat by comparison. I think it is not at all improbable that it is only in a world suffused with natural and moral evil that the optimal number of persons would come freely to know God and His salvation. So what the atheist would have to prove in order to put through the problem of evil is that there is a feasible world that God could have created which has less suffering than the actual world, including past, present and future, but has a greater knowledge of God and His salvation. And, of course, that is utterly impossible to prove. That is totally conjectural. The atheist has a burden of proof here which is simply unsustainable.

The second Christian doctrine I want to mention is that mankind is in a state of rebellion against God and His purpose. Rather than worship and serve God, people rebel against God and go their own way and so find themselves alienated from God, morally guilty before Him and groping in spiritual darkness, pursuing false Gods of their own making. The terrible human evils in the world, the inhumanity of man to man, is simply testimony to the state of man’s depravity in this condition of moral and spiritual alienation from God. The Christian isn’t surprised at the terrible moral evil in the world. On the contrary, we expect it! The Bible says that God has given mankind over to the sin that it has chosen. In Romans 1, three times Paul says, “God gave them up.” He doesn’t interfere to stop the course of human depravity. He lets it run its course, with all of its terrible consequences. This only serves to heighten our moral culpability before God and our desperate need of God’s forgiveness and moral cleansing in our lives.

Third doctrine – God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over beyond the grave into eternal life. According to the Christian worldview, this life is not all there is. This life is just the cramped and narrow foyer that then opens up into the great banquet hall of God’s eternity. God promises eternal life to everyone who will place his faith in Christ as his savior and Lord. So when God asks His children to endure horrible pain and horrible suffering in this life, it is only with a view to an eternal life of heavenly recompense that is literally beyond all comprehension.

The apostle Paul understood this.1 When you reflect on it, the apostle Paul lived a life of incredible suffering. He suffered both from natural evil – he had some kind of a disease that he called his “thorn in the flesh” that was a hindrance to him and a burden to others – and he also suffered moral evil, as he was persecuted and beaten and so forth. His life as an apostle, as he puts it, was punctuated by “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, and hunger.” And yet, he wrote these words:

So we do not lose heart. . . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Paul lived this life in the perspective of eternity. He understood that the length of this life, being finite, was literally incapable of being compared to the life that we will enjoy with God in heaven. Think about it this way – the longer we spend in heaven, the more the sufferings of this life shrink by comparison to literally an infinitesimal moment. That is why Paul can refer to them as “a slight momentary affliction.” He wasn’t being insensitive to those who suffer horrible things. On the contrary, he was one of them himself. But he simply understood that the sufferings of this life, being finite in duration, were simply overwhelmed by the ocean of divine eternity and joy that God will lavish upon His children in heaven.

I think it is entirely possible that there may be suffering in this life that we undergo which has no earthly purpose whatsoever. It has no point at all. But God permits it simply that He might over-abundantly compensate those who have borne their suffering in dependency and trust in Him with reward of incomprehensible proportions. When you think of eternal life and the reward that that is, it simply overwhelms the suffering that God asks us to endure in this life.

Finally, number four, the knowledge of God is an incommensurable good. The passage from 2 Corinthians 4 also makes this same point. Here Paul imagines, as it were, a scale in which, on one hand, is placed all the sufferings and rottenness and misery of this life, and on the other side of the scale is placed the glory that God will bestow upon His children in heaven. And Paul says the weight of glory is so great that the sufferings of this life are not even worth comparing to it. For the person who knows God, who is connected to the source of infinite goodness and love, no matter what he suffers, no matter how awful his pain, can still truly say, “God is good to me!”, simply in virtue of the fact that he knows God – an incommensurable good.

These four Christian doctrines, if true, greatly increase the probability of the coexistence of God and the suffering in the world. Given the truth of these doctrines, I do not think it is really all that surprising that we should find ourselves in a world that is suffused with natural and moral suffering. They thereby decrease any improbability which this suffering might be thought to throw upon God’s existence.


Question: Is this an anti-Christian view or an anti-God view? If you look at Lamentations, you clearly see God’s hand in suffering and the reason for it, and it is very explainable. But the God that seems like this question is raised of is the new covenant God.2

Answer: I suppose a Jew could make these same points if he believes in immortality. He would say the knowledge of God is the purpose of life, that we are in a state of rebellion against God, that God’s purpose spills over to eternal life, and that knowing God is an incommensurable good. So I think it would be right to say that this is the biblical God; but that these would be points, I think, that a Jew could also probably affirm.

Question: Regarding (4), what do you think about the classical book Candide – how would that play here?

Answer: I don’t think it plays into (4). Let’s say a word about that. This is talking about Voltaire’s book Candide, ridiculing Leibniz’s claim that this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire takes as his point of departure the Lisbon earthquake, which resulted in something like 50,000 deaths in Portugal, and asks, ridiculing and mocking Leibniz, how can this be the best of all possible worlds? Initially, that seems like a pretty plausible response by Voltaire. But if I am right about point (1) – not so much about point (4), I think point (1) – I don’t think that is a good refutation at all. It may well be the case that only in a world in which the Lisbon earthquake occurred that the optimal number of people would freely come to know God and find salvation. We have no idea of the historical ramifications of the Lisbon earthquake down through history. In fact, for example, I have seen statements about the recent earthquake in Haiti, where so many thousands were killed, that God has used this in Haiti to bring about revival. There are thousands of people, including voodoo priests, coming to Christ because of the suffering that was endured that was a result of that earthquake. I think Voltaire is one more example of this kind of superficial atheism that uses mockery and ridicule to refute a point, but when you probe it on a deeper level, it is really not as impressive as it might at first seem.

Question: In response to the point that God’s purpose is not restricted to this life, that suffering in this life is infinitesimal compared to eternity, doesn’t that argument cut both ways? What about the majority of humans born not going to heaven? This is the whole doctrine of hell, that some will be raised to everlasting abhorrence, something that either includes flames or something so bad it can only be described as flames.  Doesn’t that sort of cut on both sides of the argument?

Answer: I think it raises a new problem, but a different problem, because the problem that we are initially confronted with is, “Doesn’t the suffering in the world show that God does not exist?” I think that my response to that shows that, no, that is not true. What the atheist might then argue is something like:  the doctrine of hell is a pernicious doctrine and is incompatible with either God’s love or His justice. Then I think what we would try to do is argue that it is neither incompatible with His love nor with His justice. But that is not the problem of suffering or the problem of evil anymore, that is a different question. That is the question of the doctrine of hell and whether or not that is consistent with God’s attributes.

Let me say something more at this point, so that we will come to a stopping point. The atheist might respond at this point that we have not shown that these four Christian doctrines are true. But remember who has got the burden of proof here! You do not have to show that these doctrines are true – it is the atheist who is saying that God’s existence is improbable given the suffering in the world. It is entirely legitimate for you to say, “Not for the existence of the Christian God! That is not improbable given the suffering in the world.” It is up to the atheist then to show either that these doctrines are improbable or that evil or suffering is improbable even given these doctrines. The burden of proof either way is on him – don’t let him shift the burden of proof onto you.

In summary, I think that the probabilistic version of the problem of suffering is no more successful than the logical version. It requires probability judgments that are way beyond our ability to make, it fails to take into account the full scope of the evidence for God’s existence, and it is diminished in force when it comes to the Christian, or biblical, God.3 Therefore, since neither the logical version nor the probabilistic version of the problem of evil successfully shows that God does not exist, I conclude that the intellectual problem of suffering fails as an argument for atheism.

The Emotional Problem of Evil

When I say “fails,” of course, I mean “fails intellectually.” The anger and the bitterness and the anguish of the problem of suffering may still remain. That takes us to the emotional problem of suffering. I have already said that I think most people who object to God’s existence based on suffering are really dealing with an emotional, and not with an intellectual, problem. Does the Christian faith have anything to say to people who are struggling with the emotional problem of suffering?

I think it most certainly does! – because the Christian faith tells us that God is not some sort of an impersonal ground of being or a distant creator, but rather He is a loving, heavenly father who shares our sufferings and who hurts along with us.

On the cross, Christ endured a suffering of which we can form no comprehension whatsoever. He bore the wrath of God and the penalty for the sins of the whole world. None of us can understand what He suffered. He was utterly innocent. If anyone can complain of the problem of innocent suffering, it would have been Jesus of Nazareth. And yet He underwent incomparable suffering. And why? Because He loves you so much. How can we reject Him who was willing to give up everything for us?

So when God asks us to undergo suffering that seems unmerited, pointless, or unnecessary, I think that meditation upon the cross of Christ, meditation upon the wounds, the sufferings, of Christ can help to give us the moral strength and the courage to endure the cross that He asks us to bear.

I said a moment ago that knowing God is an incommensurable good, to which our suffering cannot even be compared. I think few of us really understand this truth. But a colleague of mine recently got to know a woman who did. My friend Tom used to make it his habit to visit shut-ins in a nursing home in the area in order to try to bring some cheer into their lives. One day he met a woman whom he would never forget. I want to read you his testimony about this person:

On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few who were alive enough to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.

As I neared the end of this hallway, I saw an old woman strapped in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to the side, dropped one eye and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I also learned later that this woman was 89 years old and that she had been bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone for 25 years. This was Mabel.

I don't know why I spoke to her. She looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you, Happy Mother's Day!” She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke, and much to my surprise her words, though somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, “Thank you, it's lovely, but can I give it to someone else? I can't see it you know, I'm blind.”

I said, “Of course,” and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one and stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus.”4

It was then that it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. . . . Mabel and I became friends over the next few weeks, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. . . . It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder. And I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down the things she would say. . . .

During one hectic week of final exams, I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once with all of the things that I had to think about. The question occurred to me, what does Mabel have to think about? Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it is day or night. So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?”

And she said, “I think about my Jesus.”

I sat there and thought for a moment about the difficulty for me of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes. And I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote, and this is what she said,

I think how good he has been to me. He has been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . . . I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied. . . . Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don't care. I'd rather have Jesus, he is all the world to me.

And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:

Jesus is all the world to me,
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day,
Without him, I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go.
No other one can cheer me so.
When I am sad, he makes me glad.
He’s my friend.

This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know, I knew her. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening – and she laid there and sang hymns. How could she do it?

The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don't have much of. She had power. Lying there, in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk. . . , she had incredible power.5

Paradoxically, even though the problem of suffering is the greatest obstacle to believing in God, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of suffering. If God does not exist, then we are locked without hope in a world filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering. God is the final answer to the problem of suffering because He redeems us from evil and takes us into the fellowship of an incommensurable good for eternity, which is fellowship with Himself.

I’ll simply end there and leave it to your reflection.6




1 5:00

2 10:05

3 15:03

4 19:57

5 Thomas E. Schmidt, Trying to Be Good: A Book of Doing for Thinking People (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 180-183.

6 Total Running Time: 23:47