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Monday, January 07, 2008

Where is God when things hurt us badly? pt. 2

In a recent post, "Where is God when things hurt us badly?" I quoted from two important works of science fiction, which have that question as a major theme. I received more than the usual number of comments on the post (a couple of which were really about something else). Here's the last comment (so far, anyway). That comment deserves a lengthy, serious answer:
David B. Ellis said...
The whole question is WHY if God loves human beings he stands by inactive while they undergo horrible unnecessary agonies.

Such behavior is not consistent with a loving nature.

The religious skeptic is able to give a clear and credible answer to the question of why a loving God would allow such suffering:

Because he's fictional.

Theism, on the other hand, has been able to give no credible answer.

Simply restating your premise that God loves us does nothing to address this question---one of the most puzzling of issues that theism must address.
Ellis's first paragraph will do as a statement of the issue. I agree with him that this is one of the most puzzling issues that theism must address. Many others have attempted to address it, and some of them have been more successful than I expect to be. Nonetheless, I'll muse about it in this post.

The usual Christian response to the problem of pain is that given by C. S. Lewis. The theology of this question is called theodicy. I am not a theologian, nor an expert in theodicy. I have read Lewis, and some criticism of his response.

My summary of the response by Lewis is the following:

Unselfish, agape love includes a desire for independence in the objects of love.

Although God began as an all-powerful being, He chose to give up some of His power, in that some of the beings He created were given the opportunity to make choices. If they really can make choices, then one of the results is that they (and often others, even innocent others) must experience the consequences of their choices, even though God would wish that they could be protected from such consequences. If there was no possibility of bad results of their choices they wouldn't really be choices. This is similar to, say, teaching a child to drive a car. Sooner or later, such a young driver, if she has really become an autonomous driver, must drive by herself. This means that she may have an accident, injuring herself, perhaps others, and even die, or kill others. Her parent knows this, but also knows that he cannot always be there to give advice, or take the wheel. In order that the young driver be able to transport herself to work, or to college, she must be able to make her own choices while on the road. Sometimes these choices will be wrong, with terrible consequences, but not allowing her to drive would be even worse -- she would always be dependent on others. Although allowing others to make choices may lead to terrible consequences, it may also lead to wonderful consequences. The daughter may get a good job, experience a good education, and meet a good husband. The creature, created by God, may choose to follow in His steps, without being forced to do so. A God who loves very much loved enough to allow for autonomy in some of His creatures.

Humans chose to admit evil into the world. From that came sin, sickness, war, death, and all kinds of evil. God didn't want that, but He did want humans (and angels, apparently) to have the capacity to choose. These terrible consequences have come about as a result.

God's answer to human problems, caused by our bad choices, original and current, is not to remove the problems, but to offer hope, and, especially, love. The ultimate love was to take on God Himself the consequences of evil choices, paying the price for our sin by His own sacrificial death -- love in the extreme. He also offers, to those who chose to accept it, an eternal life of (apparently) unmitigated good, in His presence. Thus, His answer to the terrible problem of pain is not to take the pain away, but to impart love and hope, and, finally, Himself. As Lewis put it fictionally:

"I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?" C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, p. 308. (Faces is not exactly about the problem of pain. It is more about the problem of being alive. But the answer stands.)

Ellis, and others, may say that this is no answer, and, in a way, it isn't one. Job wondered where God was when he was sitting in the ash heap, scraping his boils with broken pottery, with his family and possessions mostly destroyed. God didn't exactly answer him, but simply asked Job to compare himself with God. This was good enough for Job -- God is all-powerful (except where self-limited by the choices of others) good, and loving. Job repented of his doubt.

Christ, Himself, while on the cross, cried out "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" I suppose that He Himself was wondering where God's love was, at that time of greatest suffering. He personally experienced the consequences of my bad choices, and those of others. But He also cried out, as His last utterance, "Into your hands I commit my spirit." God's love is the answer. Hope, Love, and God Himself do not stop suffering. They don't even explain it. But they offer a way to cope, and final relief.

I have also posted again on this topic, responding to another of Ellis's comments. I thank him greatly for those comments, whether or not he finds my responses satisfactory.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

Added Jan 21, 2008: I have come to see that there is a serious omission in my musing on this subject, which I have attempted to repair with a fourth post on the subject.

19 comments:

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Great discussion, Martin. I just finished reading C. S. Lewis's Miracles and started The Problem of Pain this morning. Wish I was further along.

In Miracles Lewis postulates that the redemption of Nature actually is something richer, deeper than the original creation.

I don't know as I agree about "Nature" because we have the indication that there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth, not just a redeemed universe. But I think the point is true about the man who has a New Nature.

Clearly we see God in a new way because of our status as forgiven. In fact, Jesus said we could ONLY come to the Father through the Son, so we could not, after the fall, see God's face at all apart from His intervention.

Paul seems to reinforce this idea that even though the outer man is decaying, the inner is being made more alive than ever.

Pain seems to be part of the process, triggered by Man, not God, but used by Him for our good. Could He short circuit it? Yes, but at a great cost to us. We would lose sight of our need for Him, our total dependence, or own unworthiness and inability to solve our own greatest needs.

I look forward to what your other commenters will say on the topic. Or on the evolution one.

Becky

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comment! You are right, that there are things that can only be seen by faith. (Or, some would say, by the deluded...)

Keetha said...

While I know we can trigger our own pain, I'm not sure all pain is a result of our choice.

I certainly do not enjoy pain, nor would I volunteer to be a knowing recipient, however when I look back at the long dark tunnels of my life I realize two things, 1) I am a far better (softer, more pliable, more empathetic) person because of them and 2) Without those tunnels I would never have appreciated the smoother places fully.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Keetha.

I believe all pain is the result of the Fall, which came because of a wrong choice, and I didn't say that well, if at all.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I suspect Keetha was responding to this part of my comment: Pain seems to be part of the process, triggered by Man, not God, but used by Him for our good. So it was me who was not clear, Martin.

I was referring to the Fall when I said Man triggered pain. I don't think, as a general rule, people trigger pain purposefully. In fact, we are often more about finding ways to avoid pain. But that pain came into existence is directly related to Man's disobedience.

As a by-product, continued disobedience often results in direct pain, if not immediate, then at some point down the line.

But this in no way means that everyone in pain must therefore be walking in disobedience.

Becky

Martin LaBar said...

No, indeed, not (to respond to Rebecca Luella Miller's last paragraph). Job teaches that obedient people may suffer. So does part of Hebrews 11.

Thanks.

Rey said...

I've found it helpful also to know that in part some of the bad all around us is because God is currently systematically punishing as per Romans 1. If he's doing it now, we can expect a full balancing of the scales as all the Psalms rejoice in.

Martin LaBar said...

I wouldn't put it quite that way. I read Romans 1 as a description of how we are systematically punishing ourselves, with the consequences of our own evil behavior.

Also, I don't believe that all the Psalms are about punishment. Some are, of course.

Thanks for your comment.

Rey said...

I find that very hard to reconcile with because of thanklessness and foolishness God giving them over to their lusts, then God giving them over to degrading passions then finally God giving them over to a depraved mind. Sure they're earning it but I don't think that we can say we're punishing ourselves if God is the one, ultimately, giving over to the harsher states. I'd even put Pharaoh at the end of the rope as a person God has given over to his own arrogance and depraved thinking until the end.

And I think I miscommunicated on the Psalms bit since I wasn't implying punishment but a balancing of the accounts. The righteous to one end the wicked to another. The Lord's Anointed seated, the nations succumbed, etc. A setting aright. All the Psalms may not have that theme but they strike the note in different places (although admittedly, All may be a bit overstated).

You've got a good blog by the way.

Rey said...

obviously i forgot quotation marks around things I've said.

David B. Ellis said...

Hello, Martin. I'm afraid the theodicy you present falls far short of reconciling the existence of a loving God with the extreme suffering to be found in the world.

You state, first, a version of the free will theodicy:


Although God began as an all-powerful being, He chose to give up some of His power, in that some of the beings He created were given the opportunity to make choices. If they really can make choices, then one of the results is that they (and often others, even innocent others) must experience the consequences of their choices, even though God would wish that they could be protected from such consequences.


The problem here is obvious. Autonomy is not reduced one iota by the elimation of vast amounts of the extreme suffering to be found in the world. For example, if God healed a genetic malady in the womb which would have caused the child to be born and suffer agony for several weeks before dying, no autonomy would be reduced.

Even in the case of of suffering caused by the free, autonomous choices of human beings, it makes little sense to claim a person is loving who stands by and does nothing to come to the aid of, for example, a child who is abducted, raped, tortured and murdered.

With a mere anonymous phone call to the police, God could save that child.....but he doesn't because it would interfere with the autonomy of the abductor?

There is a difference between free will and freedom of action. The abductor's free will is in no way interfered with by preventing him from carrying out the action he freely chooses to attempt.

A police officer who arrests a man attempting to abduct a child has not infringed on the man's free will....only on his freedom to act according to his will.

This distinction between autonomy of will and autonomy of action is devastating to your argument even in the case of extreme suffering caused by human choice.

Moreover, it is contradicted by the bible itself which describes, on many occasions, God interfering to prevent harm to people---something your attempted theodicy proscribes.

Second, you attempt a theodicy based on the Fall (even though you don't specifically use that word):


Humans chose to admit evil into the world. From that came sin, sickness, war, death, and all kinds of evil. God didn't want that, but He did want humans (and angels, apparently) to have the capacity to choose. These terrible consequences have come about as a result.


The problem with this is, again, an obvious one. The consequences of human beings choosing to sin were ones God himself chose to inflict. This theodicy doesnt solve the problem of unnecessary suffering at all.

In fact, it makes it far more acute. On this theodicy, all the suffering resulting from disease, famine, and other environmental causes are Gods direct choice.

Is it really the act of a loving being to inflict such suffering on all living beings (including animals, beings incapable of sin) simply because the first human beings made a single wrong choice? Or because their descendents have been morally imperfect?


God's answer to human problems, caused by our bad choices, original and current, is not to remove the problems, but to offer hope, and, especially, love. The ultimate love was to take on God Himself the consequences of evil choices, paying the price for our sin by His own sacrificial death -- love in the extreme. He also offers, to those who chose to accept it, an eternal life of (apparently) unmitigated good, in His presence.


Inflicting terrible suffering is not any less atrocious because you reward someone afterward. That God allows a child to be born with agonizing genetic abnormalities is no less atrocious because he then rewards him with heaven after his short agonizing life. No more than it would be if you or I tortured a child then gave then a billion dollars afterward.

Nothing in what you have said alleviates the contradiction between the existence of a loving God and his supposed actions in the slightest amount.....much of what you have said, particularly concerning the Fall, only aggravates the difficulty.

I wish to propose an idea that I hold and which I know most christians will find very unpalatable:

I think it is an insult to the very concept of a loving God to believe he would allow or (as the doctrine of the Fall claims) directly inflict such horrible suffering as is to be found in this world.

Given the suffering to be found in this world, nonbelief in God is, not an insult, but the highest compliment, the finest act of worship, we can give to the very idea of A Loving God.

And I, for one, will continue in that act of worshipful devotion to the concept of a being who perfectly embodies Love Itself.

Rey said...

It seems to me we're underplaying who gets hits the most with sin and suffering. We're looking at this horizontally and thinking "how can all this explain a loving God" or "God loves us so He lets us choose our actions and reap the appropriate consequences."

Although there are aspects of truth with both we forget how the Bible talks about sin in relation to God.

He abhors it. It's against Him. He repels it. It is the raised fist of His creation in each and every step.

So when a person lies to another they're saying "I'm the final arbiter of Truth." And when a person lies to another they're saying "I choose who deserves life and who doesn't".

In each case it is a Created Being taking on himself the prerogative that is God's alone and making these incalculable decisions while being weighed on an infinite balance: where a perfect eternal being stands on one side and a finite being stands on the other.

It's why David, after committing, adultery, murdering a the wife's husband and losing the child can say "Against you, God alone, have I sinned."

Each and every sin is a pushing of God off His rightful place as God.

Our biggest problem isn't sin and suffering. It's a problem of God being rightfully against us.

So we can't just look at sin and suffering and say "Why", I think we've gotta say "What's taking Him so long?"

And then we can snap back to His love and prerogative.

Remaining completely just He offers a way that sinners can be reconciled: where they can find end of hostilities with God Himself. He sets His son to walk among people, to be handled, to speak and interpret His message perfectly.

Sin must be punished. But God is the one who provides the means to survive punishment.

That is all translated into the Son being obedient to the point of Death on the Cross and there we see exactly what God thinks of sin; exactly what God thinks of punishment for sin; and exactly what God thinks of His Son.

And therein we see exactly what God thinks of His creation. Not willing that any should be wiped out in the end by His perfect wrath, He's patient, allowing sin to multiply because as it does so His grace multiplies and more are saved.

And more are saved.

And more are saved.

David B. Ellis said...


Remaining completely just He offers a way that sinners can be reconciled...


A God who would do as the doctrine of the Fall describes. Who would, when a single living being has fallen short of moral perfection, redesign the world into such a form as to serve, for all practical purposes, as a torture chamber for many of the living beings born into it is not just nor loving.

Not if those words are to retain any significant meaning.


You say God hates sin. And yet you think that at the Fall he redesigned humanities nature into such a form as to be intrinsically sinful and prone to almost, perhaps totally, inescapably incapable of remaining without sin.

In order to save the idea that a loving God exists you are forced to defend positions which are patently absurd and which are a deep insult to the very concepts of Love and Justice.

This is exactly why I think atheism is the truest act of worship for the concept of a loving God.

No truly just and loving being would behave in the atrocious manner your beliefs force you to defend---twisting and distorting the ideas of love and justice in the process so that only a travesty of those ideas remains.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comments, Rey and David B. Ellis.

David, I don't think we are getting anywhere here. I certainly see what you are saying, and admit, as many other Christians have, that the problem of evil/suffering in the world is one that is difficult to deal with. However, I have found an answer that satisfies me, namely that God chose to allow humans to choose, and the choice was wrong, so wrong that, as Paul puts it, the "whole creation" was marred. Then God, in love beyond our understanding, came into the world to take on Himself the consequences of that terrible choice (and all the other terrible choices that have been made since).

You, on the other hand, have found an answer that satisfies you, namely non-belief.

God (or non-god) help us both.

Thanks a lot.

Martin LaBar said...

My position is also one that says, "OK, there are some things that I'm not in charge of, and that I can't explain, but I still trust God."

That was Job's position at the end of the book. He said "I give up."

Thanks, everyone.

David B. Ellis said...


However, I have found an answer that satisfies me, namely that God chose to allow humans to choose, and the choice was wrong, so wrong that, as Paul puts it, the "whole creation" was marred.


This does nothing to answer the problem. You speak of creation having been "marred" as if it were something beyond God's control and which he was not directly responsible for. This, of course, is not correct. If creation was altered by humanity having sinned it is because God chose for it to be altered---and chose precisely the manner in which it would be altered.

AS I said before, this only aggravates the problem---making him directly responsible for most of the suffering in the world due to his decision to redesign nature into a marred form and the nature of all humans born after the first sin into a form prone to sinfulness.

The problem has been changed from a question as to why God is inactive in the face of suffering when he could easily help to his being directly responsible for the redesigns that cause that suffering.

Your "answer" has only made the situation even more problematic.


David, I don't think we are getting anywhere here.


I think we've adequately stated our positions and I'm satisfied to let what I've said on the subject stand without further discussion.

I'll leave it for anyone who happens to read the discussion to judge for themselves. Hopefully, what we've said here will give them something to think about.

Thanks,
David E.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, David B. Ellis.

For what it's worth, which isn't a lot, I've added this post to the list of my most important ones.

PastorJasonNRBC said...

Two questions: 1) How much pain disproves God? 2) Is it right to assume that just because we can't think of a good reason that God allows or causes (indirectly) suffering, that there must not be a reason in existence? We would be pretty arrogant to say that an infinite being must be subject to our finite evaluations of situations with our limited knowledge and indwelling self-deception.

Martin LaBar said...

July 25, 2008: Thanks, PastorJasonNRBC.

In response to your first question, I think I am a believer, no matter how much pain I personally suffer. I hope I am. I guess that's my attitude on mass disasters, too. In other words, no amount of pain should disprove God, for me.

As to your second point, I agree. Thanks for saying it.