Suffering Fools Gladly

It started in an undergraduate philosophy class. I sat back one day and decided to observe the interchange between professor and students over the problem of suffering. We were going step-by-step through the usual array of arguments, and seemed to be getting nowhere.

At the heart of the first argument was a claim that went like this: Suffering is not good in and of itself, but it can lead to something which is good. Perhaps it can mold and shape us into better people. We need to think of this world as a “vale of soul making.”

The atheist professor has a ready reply: But what about those people who suffer and never have the opportunity to improve themselves in the face of hardships and trials? What about the infant who dies at an early age? What about those people who just give up on God altogether?

So we move on to the next argument: Maybe suffering is necessary for good. We cannot know love without hate. We cannot know compassion without pain. We cannot know courage without danger.

The professor has another reply at his fingertips: But do the momentary flashes of kindness outweigh the horrendous acts of evil? Is a world with both good and evil really better than a world with good alone?

Next, we spend a lot of time on the free will defense. A world with free moral agents like us is better than a world with thinking creatures who are little more than animals or robots.

The atheist immediately seizes on this point: But do we really have the freedom to choose? Are we not just thinking animals? Are we not wholly the product of blind, natural forces?

Most of the students balk at this point, for all the obvious reasons. The professor senses he is losing ground and launches into a cascade of accusations:  Why make a world in which sin and suffering were possible in the first place? Why make moral beings able to choose evil? Why make anything at all, knowing what would happen to this world? Why God? Why?!

But a very subtle rule of order has been introduced along the way. You see, the students who cared enough to defend their faith had been trying to respond from Scripture. Eventually, they were shut down with this simple statement from the professor: “But I don’t believe the Bible.”

It was then that I knew what had gone wrong.  Historically, apologists have offered philosophical answers to what is perceived to be the philosophical problem of suffering. These students had a completely different approach. As Bible-believers, they were trying to answer from the Bible. Imagine that!

My personal wakeup call was to realize that these guys were on the right track. They simply lacked the confidence to call the professor’s bluff. I suspect that many believers know exactly what to say on the subject of suffering, but are intimidated into thinking that their Biblical answers don’t count.

Atheists keep telling us that the existence of so much suffering in the world is a challenge to theism in general and the Christian faith in particular. As Christians, we readily acknowledge the existence of suffering in this fallen, sin-sick world. At the same time, we acknowledge the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God. Both of those beliefs are based on Scripture (Rom. 10:17). So if the atheist alleges an inconsistency among those beliefs, he will need to hear a Biblical answer in response. Whether he believes the Bible is true, or authoritative, or inerrant is beside the point.

Unfortunately, many of our replies are primarily philosophical with a sprinkling of Scriptural proof-texts. What we need, and what we already have, is a systematic theological response. Of course, most atheists don’t want this kind of discussion because they know nothing about theology.

So my advice is this: go ahead and speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31). You have the answers. They’re right there in your Book. Don’t let anyone challenge your faith and then tell you that the source of that faith is off limits.

It’s a great irony to me that suffering should be considered the atheists’ silver bullet, the one hit KO against theism. Notice that I said “suffering,” and not “the argument from suffering.” I suspect that Christians are troubled more by the argument’s ambush alleys and senseless cul-de-sacs than the reality of suffering in their daily lives. It’s an irony because Christians experience pain and loss like everyone else (if not more, at times), and yet they continue to pray and to praise. Are they too dumb, too foolish, to see the inconsistency that the atheist sees? I don’t think so. I think they see the Son of God suffering on the cross for their sins, and they have their answer. Mind you, it’s a Biblical answer.

[A version of this article appeared as “Suffering: The Atheists’ Silver Bullet” in Think, April 2011, p. 15.]

© 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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