Monday, 25 October 2010

Is it logical to say that there is a God of love when there is so much suffering in the world?

The presence of so much suffering in the world can seem inexplicable to many people of many different beliefs. It can, however, seem especially incompatible with a belief in an all powerful, all knowing and all loving God. However, suffering is not something new and it is something which Christianity has long learned to live with and about which the Bible has much to say. The Bible offers a number of coherent explanations regarding the existence of suffering in our world. However, it must be acknowledged that it does not offer comprehensive answers. Precisely how we fit the tragic death of a baby into this framework can, at times, seem unclear. However, the Bible is also clear that we should not expect to be able to understand why God permits so much evil in this world. The Bible stresses that God does not think like we think and that we are incapable of approaching him as his intellectual equal. However, in a sceptical age it seems unreasonable to hold such blind faith in our own cognitive facilities that we believe that if we cannot see the entirety of the explanation for all suffering there must not be one.

The Bible offers a framework for understanding suffering which, although not complete, is certainly logical. In fact the Bible offers considerable explanation for the existence of so much suffering in our world which is noticeably lacking in other frameworks and philosophies. Any claim that it is not logical to believe in a God of love when there is so much suffering in the world fails to take seriously the explanations given by the same Bible which asserts that God is a God of love. However, ultimately the belief in the God of the Bible is not a result of a logical analysis of the suffering in our world. Rather belief in the God of the Bible is a result of God’s revelation to us primarily in the person of Jesus Christ. Even if the existence of so much suffering in the world does create a logical barrier to believing in the God of the Bible this is not strong enough evidence to counteract the evidence for believing in him offered by the written accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. In the person of Jesus, God came to earth as a human and revealed himself to us. He lived on earth, he suffered on earth, he died on earth and he came back to life on earth. The evidence offered by eye witness accounts is so strong that any problems offered by the existence of suffering cannot be sufficient to logically keep anyone from believing in the God of love the Bible presents.

The temporary nature of suffering

At the heart of the issue of suffering (this is part 4 of the discussion I think) is the question of if there was a God of love why would he not do away with all suffering and make a world where there is none of the suffering which seems to plague our world? Although the Bible gives us numerous reasons why God currently allows suffering in this world, the Bible’s answer to this question is that ultimately this is exactly what God is going to do. The Bible clearly states that one day Jesus will return to judge this world finally. On that day this world will be destroyed and God will create a new world. The Bible describes this new creation as a place with no tears, no death, no mourning and no more pain. So the very thing people think that God should do is, absolutely, his intention. If the question is why a God of love would not create a new world in which there was no more suffering then the answer is that he is going to.

So why not now? Why does God not just get on and create this new world? The Bible’s answer to this begins with the assertion that not all people will be a part of this new creation. In order to be part of God’s perfect new world people must be made righteous. As none of us have lived righteous lives we cannot rely on this and so we must be made righteous by faith. Therefore it is only those who have believed in Jesus and accepted the forgiveness he offers who will be part of this new creation and escape the full judgment they deserve. Therefore God does not bring in this new creation immediately so as to give as many people as possible the opportunity to find the righteousness offered through faith in Jesus and, therefore, be spared their just punishment and, instead, become part of his new creation without pain or suffering. It is perfectly logical for God to create a world with no more suffering. However, it is equally logical for a God of love to delay this, even if that means the continuation of suffering on earth if, by doing so, he can give more people time to find the righteousness he offers and be able to become a part of his new creation without any pain or suffering.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The rehabilitative nature of suffering

Whilst we must not overlook the punitive nature of this world’s suffering the Bible also clearly presents suffering as rehabilitative. Suffering is not merely God’s judgment but also one of God’s means of challenging and changing people. The most significant way the Bible talks about God using suffering is to call people to repentance. This is seen throughout the Bible. The pattern of people rejecting God, people suffering and people returning to God is present throughout the pages of the Old Testament. This is again seen clearly in the book of Joel. Whilst Joel does begin by showing that the locust plague is God’s judgment, he then moves on to use this judgment to encourage the people to repent. Joel seems to clearly indicate that the correct response to recognising that suffering is a result of God’s judgment is repentance. Jesus also sees suffering as a call for people to repent. In Luke 13v1-5 Jesus uses examples of suffering to remind people that this is what all people deserve and that repentance represents the only correct response.

So whilst the suffering humanity endures clearly represents part of God’s punishment on humanity it is also used by him to remind people of their rebellion and the judgment which they deserve in order to bring them back to him in repentance. It is therefore completely logical for God to give this world some small tokens of the judgment they deserve, if by doing so, he can cause some people to turn to him in repentance and avoid his final judgment.

However, God does not only use suffering to bring people to repentance and back into relationship with him but he also uses it to bring about other good effects. The suffering of individuals throughout history has, at times, brought great benefits to both the individual and society at large and so the fact that suffering can lead to good results is undeniable. However, the Bible does not merely observe this reality but repeatedly claims that God uses suffering to make them better people. In Romans 5v3-5 suffering is presented as God’s means for producing endurance, character and hope. In James 1v2-4 suffering is seen as the very thing which tests people’s faith and makes them perfect, complete and lacking in nothing. The Bible repeatedly presents suffering as part of God’s plan for moulding his people and making them better. God created us to be in relationship with him, to love each other and care for creation and suffering is one of the means he uses to make us more like the people he created us to be. The greatest problem to people’s enjoyment of this world and fulfilment in life is not suffering but, rather, their inability to live in it as God intended. It is therefore completely logical for God to allow suffering if by this people are changed in such a way that they live life more like God intended them to.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The punitive nature of suffering

However, we do have to acknowledge that there is a certain amount of suffering in our world which would exist even if humanity were not involved. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts and famines may cause more suffering because of human involvement but would still cause some suffering even without. The Bible clearly states that it is God who rules this world and who sustains it. This leads to the question of why a God of love would allow such suffering to come into the world? Surely if he is omnipotent, omniscient and completely good he would rule the world differently so that the suffering of natural disasters were not a part of it.

However, the Bible clearly presents suffering as not merely permitted by God, but part of his plan for this universe. In the beginning God created a world in which there was no suffering. However, when mankind rejected God and decided they wanted to live their own way, then, not only did humanity begin causing suffering for themselves, but also God judged them by bringing suffering into their lives. So in Genesis 3v14-19 we see God pronouncing his judgment on people for their disobedience to him. This judgment includes a breakdown in the relationship between people and the natural world so that the natural world now is the cause of much suffering for humanity. The Bible therefore clearly presents suffering as part of God’s judgment on humanity for their rebellion. Throughout the Bible we see humanity’s suffering repeatedly as God’s judgment. The book of Joel was written regarding a locust plague which had devastated Israel and Joel clearly presents this as a judgment from God. So the explanation the Bible gives for suffering is that it is not merely allowed by God but rather it is part of God’s judgment on a world which has rejected him.

This leaves us with an obvious question of whether it is logical for a God of love to bring such suffering into the world as judgment? Many people see the idea that God loves and that God judges as mutually exclusive. So God is presented as either a God of love or a God of judgment but certainly not both. The problem is that these two aspects of God’s character are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually dependent. If God truly loves creation and he loves people then he must judge people when they act wrongly towards it. When God sees the damage we have done to our world by rejecting him and going our way God cannot simply ignore it because he loves his creation too much. The ability to ignore evil is not a sign of love but rather of moral indifference. It is precisely because God loves the world that he cannot let our wilful abuse of it go unpunished. Humanity’s problem is that we have forgotten how bad we are and therefore lost sight of the judgment we deserve. It is a mark of our lostness that we think we deserve the times of blessing and prosperity and that the times of suffering are not only unfair but call into question God’s goodness, or his power or even his existence. Really the truth is that we deserve much more severe judgment than we receive but the peace and tranquillity we enjoy show us God’s goodness and forbearance. The Bible therefore presents the suffering we receive as a logical part of God’s judgment on us for rejecting him, rejecting his ways and damaging his creation.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Human responsibility for suffering

The first thing the Bible asserts is that human beings are responsible for their actions and therefore the suffering they cause. As we examine whether the existence of so much suffering makes belief in a God of love illogical it is essential that we do not overlook humanity’s contribution to that suffering. Secular journalist and author P.J. O’Rourke sums up humanity’s contribution to the suffering in this world brilliantly in the introduction to his book, ‘Holidays in Hell’. He writes:

‘I wanted to know where trouble came from and why the world was such a lousy place. I wasn’t curious about natural disasters – earthquakes, mudslides, floods and droughts. These are nothing but the losing side of the Grand Canyon coin toss. OK, it’s sad. Now what? I was curious about the trouble man causes himself and which he could presumably quit causing himself at the drop of a hat, or, anyway, a gun. I wanted to know why life, which ought to be an only moderately miserable thing, is such a frightful, disgusting, horrid thing for so many people in so many places.’

The first explanation of why there is so much suffering in the world is that it’s because of people’s actions. The Bible’s summary of God’s standard for people is that they love him with all their being and that they love other people like they love themselves. It is mankind’s failure to obey God specifically in this second area which is responsible for there being so much suffering in the world. The fact that people choose to do terrible things in this world which God created cannot easily be used to demonstrate God’s lack of love. When you examine the suffering of the world you cannot help but conclude that much of it is a consequence of human action. War and violence are obvious examples. When you consider, however, how much suffering man could prevent then mankind’s responsibility becomes even more striking. When you consider the three million children who die each year from diseases for which immunisations are developed and available and the deaths from flooding in Bangladesh which are compounded by both tree felling up-stream and the fact that the poor are made to live in dangerous low lying areas, it becomes apparent that even much suffering which we would consider humanity to be innocent of is still a result of human decisions and actions.

The question which humanity is ultimately left with is not how a God of love can exist in a world where there is so much suffering but rather how humanity can be responsible for so much suffering. The Bible clearly says that mankind’s decision to reject God and go their own way has led to a break down in relationships between humans. This leads to human’s acting badly and inflicting much suffering on each other. Fundamentally the Bible’s answer to the huge amount of suffering caused by humanity is that we have all rejected God and his ways. This rejection causes us to be slaves to sin and so makes us incapable of loving people as we should. It is this lack of love for each other which leads to the pride, greed, selfishness, anger, hatred and neglect which causes so much of the suffering in this world. This Biblical answer not only offers some explanation of how it is logical to believe in a God of love in a world with so much suffering but it also offers an explanation for why man causes so much suffering. The Biblical answer of humanity’s fallen nature leading to us damaging the world and harming each other offers a logical explanation of why humanity inflicts so much suffering on itself. It is the Bible which makes us able to answer P.J. O’Rourke’s question of why man causes life to be such a frightful, disgusting and horrid thing for so many people.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Is it logical to say that God is love when there is so much suffering in the world

Seeing as people seemed interested in this general idea I thought I would post some more detailed thoughts over the next few days. Here is part 1!

Human beings have always found the world to be a somewhat ambiguous place. Whilst there is incredible goodness, beauty and creativity in the world there is also much evil, ugliness and destruction. Reconciling the existence of both good and evil, of suffering and tranquillity has proved to be a challenge for people throughout history. Some have suggested that a multiplicity of rival gods offers a logical explanation. People’s suffering is therefore a result of the capricious nature of the various gods or of which god has gained ascendancy at any one time. Human suffering is therefore often seen as little more than a by product of ongoing conflict between a variety of gods. Others have seen suffering not as the result of random interactions of a number of deities but rather as a simple conflict between two forces. Perhaps in its most common form this solution argues that there is a good God who brings everything which is good into the world and a bad devil who brings everything which is evil in the world. This sort of dualism argues that sometimes evil gains the upper hand and so people suffer and sometimes good does and so the diversity of human experience is again logically explained. Recently another logical explanation to suffering in the world has emerged in the form of scientific reasoning. Atheist scientist and author Richard Dawkins explains suffering in the following way in his book entitled 'River out of Eden'
‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.’
Suffering is therefore explained as a result of nothing more than the physical forces and natural laws which dominate our universe. As we examine these suggested explanations we are left with two questions. The first question is whether these explanations represent a logical explanation of the amount of suffering in the world? Do physical forces and natural laws really explain the irrational murder of 13 schoolchildren and suicide of the murderer which occurred in Dunblane on 13 March 1996? Do physical forces and natural laws offer any logical explanation of the seemingly irrational kindness and sacrifice seen by people throughout history? The second question is whether even if they do offer logical explanations there is any reason to believe that what they are saying is true. A multiplicity of gods may explain the co-existence of real evil and suffering and real goodness and joy but is there any reason to believe in a multiplicity of gods? The mere fact that something may offer a logical explanation for there being so much suffering in the world is not enough to accept it as the correct explanation.
A Christian is forced to answer the same question as anyone else. Why is there so much suffering in the world? This question is made more complicated by their assertion that God is omnipotent, omniscient and completely good. Surely it is not logical to believe that a being who knows everything (presumably including about all suffering), can do anything (presumably including prevent suffering) and loves perfectly (presumably including those who are suffering) can exist in a world with so much suffering. Whilst this assertion sounds convincing it remains only an assertion until the Bible’s explanation for the existence of so much suffering in our world is examined and proved to be illogical.

To be continued...

Monday, 11 October 2010

The curious incident of the baby in the night time

Being the father of 9 month old twins is a great joy most of the time. However, when one of them is awake screaming at 4 O Clock in the morning it quickly becomes one of those few times it is not. During these times I find myself babbling like a pagan asking God to stop her from crying so that I can get some sleep (oh and so that she's happy of course). However, sometimes God doesn't answer this prayer and she screams for hours and hours.

Now I know what goes on in my head at these times. I start reasoning with myself and my reasoning goes like this.
There is no reason why God would want this to happen.
I am asking God to stop it.
God wants to bless me and wouldn't pointlessly put me through this.
Therefore either God doesn't exist or he lacks the power influence to do anything about it.

This argument might sound stupid but it is the heart of the suffering argument made by many people and experienced by me regularly at 4 O clock in the morning.
Fortunately by the morning I am normally thinking more clearly and realise that just because I don't see a reason doesn't mean that there isn't one. The argument is ridiculous as it relies on us having absolute knowledge but yet it's such a common thought process in arrogant humanity.
Maybe through my baby's crying God is teaching me patience, maybe he is helping me to realise that in this fallen world even the best things (my amazing daughters) are not perfect and to long for something better! The fact is I don't know what God is doing but the fact that I can't see a reason is hardly a strong argument against the existence of God. Dawkins may talk of a God of that gaps this is well and truly an argument of the gaps.