The Problem with God
“To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.” – Andrei Lankov
The real problem with pain is God. It’s the mere existence of God that creates the dilemma of suffering and not suffering itself. If there were no God then suffering could be reduced to chance, fate or raw circumstance. While viewing suffering this way (humanistic mechanism) does not eliminate our pain, it does remove the nuanced agony of the greater issue – God allowed this nightmare in my life. There are deep questions here. The deepest the human heart is capable of asking. Most all of them are about God. If God is good why did He allow this? If God is sovereign than why didn’t He stop it? When you actually try to wrap your mind around evil – the senseless murder of a six year-old girl, or a mass murder suicide of a deranged gunman – what you are wrestling with is God and not the gunman. Every moment of every day (in tragic and subtle ways) this dilemma stairs back at us from the broken world around us. Life is lived in the contours of this problem. In fact, every worldview is formed around the resolution of the problem of evil. How we choose to resolve it determines which worldview we hold.
When someone walks into a crowded room and opens fire killing numerable innocent victims – as wicked as that act is – we may still find closure, albeit incomplete, in the presence of an actual cause. Fact – a moral agent walked into a room and pulled the trigger of his own will. In this way, we can locate the cause. And, if that perpetrator is apprehended a further sense of justice exists. We may be disturbed and frightened, but at least evil has a face. In this sense, the dilemma of evil is slightly lessened. But, if that same gunman were to open fire on the same crowd (killing the same innocent victims) and then turn the gun on himself, the shelter from the full reality of evil is removed. This is because there is no sense of closure, or justice. They both die with gunman. There is an emptiness and vulnerability in the latter scenario that exceeds the first. We are left without any sort of answer. The cause is dead. All we are left with is the raw hatred of evil. In either scenario, we usually end up describing them as an act of “senseless violence.” But, in our minds one is “more bearable” than the other, though neither is preferred.
But, the distinction we make here is only imaginary. Even if the assailant were to be captured and judged the real dilemma of evil still remains. The presence of a moral agent does not get God off the hook. You only need to ask the right question. If God is good, why does He allow evil and suffering at all? Why do people do wicked things to other people? If He has the power to stop that gunman, why didn’t He? Furthermore, why are our prisons filled with killers? Why are so many families robbed of loved ones through acts of senseless violence? You see, the problem is still God. Is He uncaring? Or, is He powerless? It seems that it would have to be one, or the other. But, what if He is both? Then we have a real problem. If He is both good and sovereign than the question that lingers is obvious – Why is there evil? Why are there deranged gunman in a universe at the exact same time there is an omni-powerful and omni-benevolent God?
Since the beginning of time man has wrestled with apparent contradiction of God and suffering. For Atheists it’s the primary argument against the existence of God. Epicurus, a philosopher from the 4th century B.C., was the first to distill the dilemma down into a formula. It’s known as the Epicurean Paradox. Basically, if God were real He’d have to be both sovereign and good. Since evil exists He can’t be both. Therefore, according to the paradox, there is no God. As you might guess, there have been numerous responses to this paradox from the Christian world over the centuries. It is easily refuted. But, what Christians don’t refute is the core reality Epicurus identified. It is the nature of God itself (good & sovereign) that creates the dilemma of suffering in the human experience. As Christians we are forced to deal with this reality. We’re also forced to answer the critics of our faith on this very point rather consistently.
Actually, long before Epicurus, the biblical character Job drug the issue of God and suffering out into the light. After the dominoes of his personal tragedy had fallen some friends came to sit with Job. For a very brief moment – when they sat in silence – they demonstrated profound wisdom and compassion. Then they opened their mouths and started needling at Job’s life. What they did not realize was that the real issue stuck in their hearts was God and not Job, nor his suffering. They were trying to get God off the hook. They were looking for the cause. They were searching for the “gunmen.” None of what happened to Job made sense in light of what they thought to be true of God. In their minds, bad things happen to good people because those good people do bad things. It’s called reciprocity. Good for good. Bad for bad. The reason for Job’s suffering must lie within Job. Job must be the “gunman.” God would not simply allow these tragic things to happen to a good man without good reason. So they sought to obtain a confession from their friend. “Job, what have you done?” But, no confession came. Job was resolute in the defense of his innocence. He was after all “blameless.” (Job 1:1) As one person noted, his friends were desperate to find the flaw in Job for very real and personal reasons. If this could happen to a man with Job’s impeccable character, what could happen to them?
Somewhere towards the end of the cross-examination conducted by his friends, Job replies with a profoundly insightful statement. “How you have counseled him who has no wisdom and plentifully declared sound knowledge.” (26:3) In other words, ”I already know these things to be true of God. He is sovereign. He is righteous. He is good. You’re preaching to the choir. I deeply believe these things. And that, my friends, is the problem.” No gunman was apprehended. God and suffering were left hanging there. Along with the mystery of “why?” The story ends where it begins – in silence. Not long after his counselors had gone silent Job covers his own mouth. They were all wrong. Even Job gives up on the pursuit of “why?” In the end there is only problem of God. He does what He chooses and – in ways we cannot understand (and probably never will) – uses even suffering to bring about His good purposes for His people.
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” – Job 38:1