Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Problem of Suffering

I've been thinking a lot lately about justice. One of the biggest (and most logically cogent) complaints people have about Christianity is that it has tremendous difficulty explaining evil and suffering in this world. Atheism offers a chillingly logical explanation: there is suffering because the universe does not care whether or not we suffer, and we happen not to be invincible in the universe as it exists. So, do the best you can, and try to appreciate all that is good in life. In the end, there's not going to be any cosmic justice. The universe does not care that you're here now, and it won't care when you leave. So forget about the big picture and focus on living a good life now.

There are no apparent logical contradictions here, except that it makes the whole pursuit of justice an absurdity. I think this idea is well-developed in lots of authors from C. S. Lewis to present day apologists like Timothy Keller. Oh, and speaking of Keller, I'm reading his book, The Reason for God, which also happens to be why I'm writing this post right now. It's a nice read, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in answers to hard questions about Christianity.

Keller develops the point about why the pursuit of justice is absurd in an atheistic universe in the ninth chapter of his book, entitled, "The Knowledge of God." He makes the case that each of us already knows there is a God, and we think and act on that knowledge every time we make an assertion like, "This is wrong."

I've heard this kind of thing before, and it's the kind of thing that gets people on both sides of religious debates going in circles. Atheists will be floored by the idea that you have to have some big God telling you what to do in order to have a sense of right and wrong. And then Christians will wonder why atheists can't see how if it's all up to us, then really right and wrong are just relative and therefore meaningless. It's so simple, each side thinks, wondering how the other side could allow themselves to be trapped in such a web of nonsense.

Fortunately, Keller has been talking with people who have genuinely well-thought doubts about Christianity long enough to know better. That's why for all of his typical evangelical arguments he also makes some appeal to what I think is the more potent side of Christian thought.

Here's what he writes in his second chapter, on suffering:

The Biblical view of things is resurrection--not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired by will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater.

Having recently read N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, I am lately rediscovering the incredible power of the truly orthodox Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. It is not a belief that gives hope to the mere individual. The resurrection of the dead will bring with it healing and restoration to the cosmos, a perfection of all creation.

It seems to me that once you brush aside all the meaningless semantics, the fundamental difference between Christianity and other worldviews is the view of what the world is going to become, and how it is going to become that way. Atheism especially predicts no happy ending for humans, no real goal toward which we as a race are moving. But Christianity predicts a future made for human beings to flourish--yet not just humans, but all creation. This gives objectivity to the concept of justice. We know certain things are right and certain things are wrong because we know that one day, things will be like this, and not like that.

We will live forever; we will not die. It is bad when people die, and it is wrong when people kill each other. We will lack nothing, and we will be perfectly content. It is bad when people don't have enough, and it is wrong when people steal from one another. There is a whole logic to justice founded on the objective reality that we anticipate as Christians. All justice can be seen as a glimpse of the future we long for, the future we know will come with the resurrection of the dead.

How will this be accomplished? Through suffering, Christianity says. Not just our suffering, but even the suffering of God, who suffered on the cross. And not only that, but even the suffering of the whole creation--see Romans 8:19-23.

We have the what, the how, but there still is this elusive, "why?" Why should we suffer? Why does God allow us to suffer? Why does God subject his creation to suffering? Even if He's justified in doing so, why? Even if the fact that He suffered for us justifies the fact that He allows our suffering, well, why did He suffer? Could He not have chosen some other path?

I think that Christians must all admit that in some sense, this "why" will always be elusive. Just read the book of Job; in the end, God didn't really see the need to answer Job's question, nor did Job persist in demanding one. Yet I've always found this question fruitful. It always causes me to remember amazing things. I always remember how the greatest memories of my life are those which involved the most hardships. I remember how every time I've found something worth pursuring, there always seemed to be a degree of pain involved. I remember how often conquering pain can be a far greater pleasure than any pleasure that comes in the absence of pain.

Most of all, I remember that Jesus is the great conquerer. He does not merely deflect pain and suffering. He absorbs it, takes it into himself, and destroys it. That is a true conqueror.

With that kind of conquering spirit, who knows what the body of Christ could do today? Save the world, maybe? At the very least, we could give a glimpse of what we know must one day come. The sooner the better, I say.

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