When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I got about halfway through When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It’s a good book. I didn’t finish the book primarily because his thesis is not acceptable to me and therefore not helpful in understanding suffering from an Abrahamic perspective. Rabbi Kushner argues that, given the existence of suffering in the world, the best answer is to give up God’s omnipotence. That’s impossible, because if God isn’t omnipotent, then He isn’t what we call God. He’s some lesser deity in competition with various other forces in the world, essentially giving us dualism or polytheism.

However, what caught my attention is that Rabbi Kushner is willing to give up God’s omnipotence because it puts God clearly on our side. He wants to help us. He just doesn’t always have the power. And this notion really clarified for me the importance of Jesus in making monotheism intelligible in a world of suffering. Jesus is God With Us, Immanuel. He is the one who emptied himself, taking the form of servant, being born in the likeness of men. He is the one pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He is the one who was put to death for our trespasses. Who is more illustrative of God being on our side, with us in our suffering, than Jesus?

Granted, Jesus’ suffering does not answer the logical problem of evil, but I have thought for many years now that the problem of evil isn’t first and foremost a logical problem. It is a values problem. We don’t just feel the world doesn’t make sense when we suffer. We feel it is unjust. God on his high mountain does nothing while we suffer and die. No amount of good can make this bad right. And if this sense of injustice is our problem, the figure of Jesus is incalculably valuable. If our Lord was humbled, pierced, crushed, scourged, and killed, then why is it unfair that the same should happen to us? We have a Lord who can relate to our sufferings in every way.

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

The Agency of God

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Mormonism has been called an atheological religion, notably by philosopher James E. Faulconer in Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Faulconer begins:

It is a matter of curiosity to many and an annoyance to some that it is sometimes difficult to get definitive answers from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to what seem like straightforward questions – questions of the form “Why do you believe or do x?” Latter-day Saints subscribe to a few basic doctrines, most of which they share with other Christians (such as that Jesus is divine) and some of which differentiate them, such as the teaching that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. They also accept general moral teachings, the kinds of things believed by both the religious and the non-religious. Apart from those, seldom can one say without preface or explanation what Latter-day Saints believe.

The explanation for this, according to Faulconer is that Mormonism is atheological, meaning “they are without an official or even semi-official philosophy that explains and gives rational support to their beliefs and teachings.”

Faulconer is right, and for the most part I see this as a feature rather than a bug. A lot of the strife in other Christian denominations has come precisely from the high stakes involved in authoritatively laying out doctrinal claims. This is why there are all those creeds out there, many of which not only played a role in religious wars and persecution, but frequently have no practical relevance today. In other words: a lot of people died for basically no good reason. By refusing to have any kind of an authoritative theology, Mormonism avoids that (metaphorical or literal) bloodbath and instead keeps the focus on the basics (for one) and on actions (for another).[ref]Mormonism is concerned with orthopraxy more than with orthodoxy, which is well and good.[/ref]

One consequence—for good or ill—is that a lot of the tough questions that other denominations have scads of theological work on are basically wide-open fields. Such as: what is the nature of all that smiting and cursing that God foretells for the wicked through prophets? Does got really get angry—in a sense that we would understand—lose his temper and let natural disasters and wars and famines and plagues loose on the targets of his wrath? Or are those depictions in some sense metaphorical or hinting at some other, underlying reality that was either misunderstood by prophets at the time or intentionally misconstrued as a means to provoking better behavior?

For a Mormon: you’re kind of on your own.

Like most religious folks, we also tend to want to have it both ways. In the last General Conference (October 2017), Elder Rasband gave one of those “there are no coincidences” talks where every little (good) thing that happens is a sign of God’s micromanaging of our day-to-day lives. In the April 1977 General Conference, Elder Romney took up the flipside of this coin, arguing that God doesn’t intentionally smite anyone:

[L]et it not be supposed, now, that the Lord takes pleasure in these calamities. He does not. He graphically foretells the inevitable consequences of men’s sins for the purpose of inducing them to repent and thereby avoid the calamities.

So, if it’s a good thing that happens, we credit it to God’s personal intervention in our lives, no matter how small. But if it’s a bad thing that happens, we absolve God of any responsibility (i.e. we claim the “calamities” are “inevitable consequences” rather than divinely-willed punishment or retribution), not matter how big.

This is a tough conundrum, and I don’t have an answer. I believe God is all-loving, and I find this very hard to reconcile with a God who micromanages a world so full of suffering and injustice. It’s easier for me to imagine a God who is—perhaps because of the strictures of free will—more often than not constrained from direct intervention. On the other hand, it’s clear that what I’m doing is creating a theodicy to conform to my intuition of justice. It’s entirely possible that there are other solutions to the problem that reconcile God’s love and mortality’s seemingly senseless misery and beauty.

If you’re from an older, orthodox religion (like Catholics or Calvinists), then you’ve got literally dozens of tomes you can fall back on. There’s some comfort in that. On the other hand, you’re also bound down to one particular authoritative interpretation or the other. And that feels like a bad idea. Not only because I’m skeptical that anybody has really gotten it right, but also because in the end I think it detracts from what really matters.

I think it’s a lot less important—although clearly not irrelevant—how we interpret the problem of evil and other theological quagmires and much more important—positively vital—how we respond to those dilemmas with our actions. I’ll take an orthoprax religion without the answers over an orthodox religion with flawed answers any day of the week.

I  might even take an orthopraxy religion without the answers over a hypothetical orthodox religion with the right answers, to be honest.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

God at War: Interview with Greg Boyd

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for god at warA couple months ago, I gave a talk on “trials and their purpose“, which basically become a discussion of the problem of evil in Mormon thought. I read a number of books in preparation for it, including David B. Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, Michael Austin’s Re-reading Job, and N.T. Wright’s Evil & the Justice of God. Two books that I didn’t finish prior to the talk was Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil and Gregory Boyd’s God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict. The latter in particular I wish I had finished in time. Boyd, a Princeton-educated theologian and pastor, approaches the problem of evil from what he calls the warfare worldview: the perspective that this world is a battlefield between spiritual forces of good and evil. He argues that the

biblical authors generally assume the existence of intermediary spiritual or cosmic beings. These beings, variously termed “gods,” “angels,” “principalities and powers,” “demons,” or, in the earliest strata, “Leviathan” or some other cosmic monster, can and do wage war against God, wreak havoc on his creation and bring all manner of ills upon humanity. Whether portraying Yahweh as warring against Rahab and other cosmic monsters of chaos or depicting Jesus as casting out a legion of demons from the possessed Gerasene, the Bible as well as the early postapostolic church assumes that the creation is caught up in the crossfire of an age-old cosmic battle between good and evil. As in other warfare worldviews, the Bible assumes that the course of this warfare greatly affects life on earth (pg. 18).

Boyd traces God’s conflict with the forces of chaos and evil from the Old Testament (e.g., the hostile waters of creation, Leviathan, Rahab, the gods of Ps. 82, etc.) to the New Testament (e.g., Jesus’ exorcisms, Christus Victor atonement theology). According to Boyd, the evils of this world are not only caused by the free will of human beings, but the free will of demonic beings as well. The book is fascinating and certainly interesting for Mormons, whose own teachings and scriptures depict a pre-mortal “war in heaven” that continues today.[ref]Stephen Smoot has an excellent article in the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture that explores some of these ancient motifs in the Book of Abraham.[/ref] Boyd’s analysis brings new meaning to Mormon’s words: “Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually” (Moroni 7:12).

You can see an interview with Boyd below in which he discusses some of these ideas.

The Doors of the Sea: Interview with David Bentley Hart

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for the doors of the seaIn preparation for an upcoming talk in church on “trials and their purpose,” I purchased Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?. Written after the massive South Asian tsunami in 2004, Hart addresses the most common objection to God’s existence: the problem of evil. Instead of intellectualizing, justifying, and rationalizing the evil and suffering we see and experience in the world, Hart condemns it. He reminds readers that Christ was sent to conquer death and all those things associated with it. In short, death, evil, and suffering play no role in God’s ultimate purposes because these are the very things Christ’s atonement and resurrection are meant to be victorious over. Hart movingly concludes his book with the following:

[F]ortunately, I think — we Christians are not obliged (and perhaps are not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day — to look, that is, upon the entire littoral rim of Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children — and to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning or purpose residing in all that misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, and the forces — whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance — that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

…As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (pgs. 101, 103-104).

You can see a brief interview with Hart below discussing the problem of evil below.

The Lord Delights

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul by Pietro De Cortana (Public Domain)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Some General Conference talks hit me with such unexpected force that I can never be sure if there is something particularly forceful in the talk, something especially resonant in the hour, or some coincidence of circumstance that makes it stand out so clearly from the other (also good) talks of the session. I can’t explain it, but it’s what happened when I read Elder Marion D. Hanks’ talk, Trust in the Lord. I hope I can share a couple of reasons why I loved it so much.

The Lord delights to bless us with his love.

The idea that there is a God who not only does bless us with love, but who delights to do so is arresting. It reminds me of a quote from Jonathan Haidt that has always stuck with me:

Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence towards everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return. (The Happiness Hypothesis, page 131)

Specificity is vital, and it goes both ways. God is not merely some generic, omnibenevolent abstraction. God is a title that refers to persons, like Jesus Christ and His Father, and they recognize and love each of us individually. This simple idea, that “The Lord delights to bless us with his love,” can pass by unnoticed like just another ornate phrase, but you should stop and really consider what it means. There is a person out there who sees you, who loves, and who is positively delighted to be able to bless your life.

But Elder Hanks’ talk is not all sunshine, and that is what made me love it all the more:

The power that remade Paul, that poured in love and washed out hostility and hate, did not save him from the great travails, from Nero’s dungeon or a martyr’s death. Christ lived in him, he said, he had found the peace of God that passed all comprehension. Nothing, not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth, nor any other creature, could separate him from the love of Christ… Christ died on a cross, and won his victory; his disciples and followers also have been subject to the brute forces and foibles of this world, yet through enduring faith they have shared and will share in that victory.

The Problem of Evil is confounding, and yet I find that religion is never deeper, or more beautiful, or more vital than when it confronts this problem head-on. The idea of a loving God seems so absurd in contrast with a world full of tragedy, war, disease, and disaster. And yet, doesn’t the idea of a God being executed and hung on a cross seem just as absurd? The world mocked Christ and misunderstood His supreme victory as an ignominious defeat, confusing the end of His life with the beginning of our hope. This is a mistake we’ve made before.

Elder Hanks is not speaking theoretically, nor in the abstract:

I am not really thinking in the abstract, but I’m thinking of many noble souls who have met difficulties with courage, like my mother and many others who had little to rely upon—who had little but ingenuity and will and courage and faith. I’m thinking too of a more recent scene—a beautiful young face whiter than the hospital sheet upon which she lay, her sorrowing parents nearby grieving, as a relentless disease consumed her life. Comfort came to them in the quiet knowledge of the nearness of a Savior who himself had not been spared the most keen and intense suffering, who himself had drunk of the bitter cup.

It is awful what some of us are asked to go through. And—in terms of principles like fairness or justice—it is just as awful that so many of us are inexplicably not required to pay the same high price. I don’t think I could ever love or even respect any leader—including a God—who asked their followers to go through what they were not willing to do. But Jesus is not the kind of leader. Jesus did not shy from the shadows; he walked through the deepest shade.

This talk is more than a meditation on suffering and joy and darkness and light. It is a stirring and humble call to action:

We know that the Lord needs instruments of his love. He needs a Simon Peter to teach Cornelius, an Ananias to bless Paul, a humble bishop to counsel his people, a home teacher to go into the homes of the Saints, a father and mother to be parents to their children.

This is one of those talks that makes the General Conference Odyssey worth it for me. No matter how hectic and stressed my life becomes, my soul needs testimonies like these.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

T&S: Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart

788 - Thrice Today was my day for another post at Times and Seasons. This time, I went for a very, very short post about the connection between suffering and empathy, with a little help from neuroscience, my favorite band (Thrice), and quotes from the books of Alma and Matthew. The message: Every Scar is a Bridge to Someone’s Broken Heart.[ref]Lyrics from the Thrice song, “For Miles” off of their Vheissu album.[/ref]

Give it a read, if that piques your interest.

Exploring The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is probably the most vexing philosophical question for monotheism. It has affected people I know personally all the way up to famous scholars like Bart Ehrman. What are we to do with this problem? Even though the question has been explored endlessly, I want to think about it a little today.

First, according to contemporary philosophers, the logical problem of evil is more or less solved. The logical problem of evil is a subset of the problem of evil that argues that God’s existence is logically incoherent with the existence of evil. And yet many people remain unsatisfied with the logical resolution of this problem. Why?

Some people argue because the evidential problem of evil remains. The evidential problem of evil involves arguing that the existence of evil makes God’s existence unlikely, rather than illogical. That seems like a decent argument to make, and harder to refute decisively, but I don’t think God’s existence simply being made less likely or unlikely would have the same destructive effect on faith that the problem of evil has.

I want to try a different avenue. I think the problem of evil persists because it so deeply offends our moral sense. To explain, I will turn to a different story.

In Greek philosophy, much thought turns over the Homeric gods. The Homeric gods are the gods we traditionally associate with Greece–Zeus, Athena, Ares, Hermes, Apollo, and the like. The Greek philosophers by and large reject the Homeric gods. But why they reject the Homeric gods is illustrative. They don’t reject the Homeric gods on an empirical basis, such as the fact that you can physically walk over to Mount Olympus and check if the gods are actually there. Nor do they reject them on a logical or probabilistic basis. Rather, they reject the Homeric gods on a moral basis. Surely the gods do not act in ways unworthy even of human beings. Xenohpanes, a pre-Socratic philosopher, writes:

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all those things which in men are a matter for reproach and censure: stealing, adultery, and mutual deception.

Plato expresses similar thoughts:

Plato’s second objection, however, is more fundamental…Homer and the poets teach falsely about the gods and morals. Gods who fight one another, lie and cheat, and who speak and act falsely, are not suitable for the raising and teaching of children.

The Greek philosophers then puzzle out what or who exists if the Homeric gods do not. Some of their thoughts will sound very familiar to modern monotheists (especially Xenophanes’ writings). What I want to note, though, is the direction of their thought. If something about the gods and the world seem contradictory, the Greeks posit the gods (or more generally and non-theistically the moral foundation of the world) must be better than the popular understanding, not non-existent. I think this distinction is very important.

Why? Because, remember, our objection was originally moral in nature. If our objection is moral, and our conclusion then is that the supernatural does not exist, we face the much bigger problem of accounting for the origin of the moral sense that invalidated the supernatural in the first place.

Here’s where my story ties back to the problem of evil. I believe that the problem of evil persists because it fundamentally offends our moral sense. But if the origin of the problem of evil is our moral sense, we make a deadly error in rejecting the supernatural and embracing naturalism as the solution. C.S. Lewis explains this idea in full in Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?  A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

Naturally I’m biased as a Christian, but I find this resolution fitting. The answer to our problems are implicit in the very objections we raise.

God and the Tooth Fairy: Belief Without Evidence


One common atheist argument is that you should disbelieve in God because there is no evidence of God. The argument is commonly made by analogy to other mythical creatures like the tooth fairy or the flying spaghetti monster or a celestial teapot. There’s no evidence of the tooth fairy, but that doesn’t mean that we’re neutral about the existence of tooth fairies. We’re pretty sure, based on the lack of evidence, that they do not actually exist. Here’s Richard Dawkins making this case:

It is often said, mainly by the ‘no-contests’, that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal’s wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?

The problem with this argument is that it seems to contradict basic logic: lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. And yet the intuition seems solid. We don’t merely not believe in the tooth fairy, we actually disbelieve in its existence.[ref]Non-belief refers to the absence of belief. Disbelief is a belief, but a negative one. It’s belief in the proposition that a thing is not true or does not exist.[/ref]

Most people either write off the “lack of evidence isn’t evidence of lack” line as a kind of irrelevant technicality or try to treat disbelief as something other than a form of belief. These approaches are sloppy and incorrect, and they create a warped skepticism in which negative beliefs are given an irrational and unearned privilege over positive beliefs. That’s not real skepticism, it’s just inverse credulity combined with dodgy semantics. It makes a mockery of the proud tradition of philosophical skepticism by creating a mirror image of blind faith. In the old days, the existence of God was accepted without proof. These days, a kind of hostile disbelief in God is accepted without proof instead. Meet the new orthodoxy, same in process and approach as the old orthodoxy.

Luckily, however, there actually is a way to reconcile our intuition that we should be skeptical of the tooth fairy (not merely neutral) with the rules of logic. The term that comes to the rescue is compossibility. This is a term I learned from reading an incredibly great sci-fi book[ref]Anathem by Neal Stepehenson, which has nothing to do with this post but you should definitely read.[/ref], but the term originates with Leibniz. From Wikipedia:

According to Leibniz a complete individual thing (for example a person) is characterized by all its properties, and these determine its relations with other individuals. The existence of one individual may contradict the existence of another. A possible world is made up of individuals that are compossible — that is, individuals that can exist together.

Let’s take a look at how the concept of compossibility can be used to provide a solid rational backing for the intuition that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist without requiring us to contradict the principle that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Except, instead of a tooth fairy, I’m going to go with the proposition that there’s an invisible unicorn in your backyard.[ref]The reason? That’s actually the example that, many years ago, prompted all these thoughts. And unicorns are intrinsically kind of funny.[/ref] Now, should you have:

  1. Belief | You think that there is a unicorn.
  2. Non-Belief | You do not think that there is a unicorn.
  3. Disbelief | You do not think that there is a unicorn and you think that there is not a unicorn.
Note: This image was updated in response to Jeremy's comment. (Comment #5.)
Note: This image was updated in response to Jeremy’s comment. (Comment #5.)

Here’s how compossibility comes to the rescue. A unicorn is basically a horse with a horn on its head. Horses are large mammals. If you had a large mammal in your back yard then, even if we concede it’s invisible, it would still leave hoofprints and unicorn poo behind, and it would probably also be rather noisy. Do you see any hoofprints? Smell unicorn poo? Do you hear a large 4-legged beast walking around and breathing heavily? Nope? Then you don’t just have a lack of evidence. You really do in fact, based on compossibility, have evidence of a lack. These things should be there, and they are not. Therefore, the invisible unicorn is not compossible with the state of your backyard (e.g. free of unicorn poo).

Now, I might tell you that the reason there are no hoofprints and that there is no unicorn poo is that the unicorn is actually not just a horse with a horn on its head. It’s a magical creature that only looks like a horse. In fact, however, it is light as a feather (no hoofprints) and subsists on love (no material food, ergo no unicorn poo). This new definition of an invisible unicorn is more compossible with the state of your backyard (hoofprint and unicorn poo free!), but it’s actually not more believable because now it’s asking you to believe other things that are not compossible with your experience of the world. Where, if invisible unicorns are common, do the dead ones go? Why aren’t people stumbling and falling over invisible unicorn corpses? Or hitting them with their cars? And if they are rare, how do they keep up a viable breeding density? And if they don’t breed, where do they come from? Etc.

These questions are, of course, all a bit absurd. The point is that our human intuition is, generally speaking, pretty good at doing this kind of analysis unconsciously and quickly. You don’t really need to go through all the specific questions. You can just take the basic concept of a unicorn and see that such an animal remaining undetected is highly improbable. So you’ve got a good reason to suspect that if there’s no evidence then it actually is not present. The more the definition gets altered to make the lack of evidence seem credible, the more the definition itself becomes incredible. You start asking where the unicorn poo goes and you end up asking questions about the thermodynamics of a creature that converts love to kinetic energy to move its body.

So our disbelief in things like the tooth fairy doesn’t come from what we don’t know. It comes from what we do know. It comes from everyday knowledge about biology and human nature and physics. Skepticism of things like invisible unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters or celestial teapots is not properly rationalized by knee-jerk preference for disbelief, but by deliberation about compossibility.

So how does this apply to the real argument at hand: the existence of God? I’m not going to try to convince anyone that God is real using compossibility. I’m just going to differentiate between good arguments for the non-existence of God and bad arguments for the non-existence of God. Bad arguments might take the form of, “Well, there’s no evidence so we should disbelieve.” That’s not a logically sound position to take. It’s just prejudice wrapped up in rational terminology. The argument is bad both because it’s a poor argument but also because it just doesn’t lead to any productive thought or discussion. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.

But a very good argument for the non-existence of God is to rely on something like the Problem of Evil. This turns out to be a compossibility argument again: how are (1) an all-powerful God and (2) a benevolent God and (3) the crappy state of affairs here on Earth all compossible? Just like skepticism of the invisible unicorn in your backyard, skepticism of a benevolent and all-powerful God based on the injustice and miserable suffering on Earth is a skepticism with reason behind it. Such skepticism is good both because it’s logically stronger, and also because it can lead to useful discussion.

Suffering, Evil, and God


I’m not going to answer how they can co-exist. Sorry to disappoint.

Actually, my answer is that I cannot completely know why suffering and evil exist. There’s plenty of good answers that I believe cover areas of evil, such as how evil can result from human moral freedom, suffering can bring about greater good, etc. but sooner or later we reach what we would call pointless suffering–suffering that seems to serve no purpose.

But today it dawned on me that labeling suffering as pointless is presuming knowledge a human being cannot possibly possess if God does indeed exist. I just finished reading the book of Job, and the deeper I grow in faith, the more God’s answer seems completely justified:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Truly, who can fathom why God made the world the way he did? Can we see all ends and declare with utmost certainty that we know suffering is pointless, that God had no point in allowing evil? Logic is a powerful human engine, but even logic has its limitations. Can any one human being presume to see all ends and render judgment on whether suffering has a purpose or not?

What’s more, if we presume God exists, I would argue instead that no suffering can be pointless by definition. Any suffering we endure can be offered to the glory of God. I still don’t why suffering exists, but I now know what I can do with any and all suffering that comes my way. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

It’s not an easy philosophy to carry out by any means. But I don’t think rejecting God makes the situation any better. In fact, I’d argue it makes it worse. Saying God doesn’t exist in response to the problem of evil doesn’t solve the riddle to why we suffer. It simply removes any right or basis we could possibly have for questioning why we suffer. Nature certainly doesn’t care one way or the other if we suffer and die.

The above may seem like an argument from ignorance. I don’t know, so I give up. Actually, I think it strikes a middle way: I don’t know, so I won’t presume to know in order to answer why we suffer. I think there’s much value in knowing what you cannot know, and if God exists, I definitely do not have the knowledge, either empirical or theoretical, to see all ends and explain why all suffering has ever happened and will continue to happen. But that ignorance doesn’t really bother me. As an atheist I said we shouldn’t invent answers where we simply don’t know, and I will continue to assert the same as a Christian. Better to say I don’t know than invent a false answer that presumes knowledge beyond my capacity.

As a final thought, I remember talking to a deacon who had given funerals for children. Parents often ask why their child died, and the deacon always answers, “I don’t know.” He said it’s the best answer because, truly, he doesn’t know, and trying to discern or invent an answer to a child’s death will do nothing but hurt already bereaved parents. I think that’s a good approach. There’s a real temptation for Christians to have an answer for all suffering because God is so often called to account. We should resist that temptation. Instead, let us weep with those who weep and remember that even the very wise, as Gandalf famously said, cannot see all ends.

Lindsay Lansing: Did God Answer Your Prayer?

Andrea Mantegna's Agony in the Garden, circa 1460
Andrea Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, circa 1460

My wife just forwarded me a blog post by Lindsay Lansing, who was in my ward[ref]Mormon congregation[/ref] growing up. It was profoundly moving, and so I wanted to share it. It’s called Did God Answer Your Prayer?, and it’s a sacrament talk[ref]Mormons have no paid clergy. Instead of sermons, 2 or 3 members give prepared talks during worship services ever week[/ref] that Lindsay gave in her ward recently.

The talk is about a variety of prayers–serious, earnest, desperate prayers–that were not answered, including Lindsay’s frantic rush through heavy traffic to try and get her son–who was struggling with a heart condition–to the hospital in time:

William was screaming in the back of my car, and I was trapped. I couldn’t console him, I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t even get out of the car to hold him because the traffic was so bad. I came to a fork in the road and I had to choose which way to the hospital. As tears streamed down my face, I said a prayer out loud, pleading for the Lord to tell me which way to go. There was no prompting. I chose one way, and it turned out to be awful. I realized the other way was better, and it then took me 10 minutes to just turn around, all while little William was screaming in the back. I thought he was going to die. I prayed for the Lord to turn my car into a hover craft… to fly me to the hospital. That didn’t happen. I prayed for all the stoplights to turn green, but they all turned red. I prayed for the crazy lady in front of me to hurry up and pay the teller in the parking garage and get into the parking deck. But she had no money. I prayed to find a parking spot close to the hospital, and there were none.

I kept waiting for the time when Lindsay would talk about the prayer that was answered, and how then everything was OK. And it all made sense. And it was all worthwhile. I never got there. That moment, from what I can tell, hasn’t come for Lindsay yet.

And that’s what made this such a profound article. It wasn’t the stereotypical Ensign story[ref]The Engisn is an official magazine of the LDS Church. It often contains short spiritual stories submitted by members, often of miraculous answers to prayers.[/ref] with a beginning, middle, and happy end. It was a real life story: just an interminable, senseless middle.

These are issues that have occupied me as well. Lindsay says, at one point, “I had always heard stories about people losing their keys, praying to find them, and then miraculously being led to find them under the couch.” It’s one of those stereotypical everyday miracles, and prompted me to write Does God Help Find Car Keys? last year. And then, at the end, she writes:

I do not know why God heals some by their faith and others he does not. I do not profess to know the meaning of all things. But I will not let the things that I do not know, affect the things that I do know. One of them is that God loves us. That we are his children. And the Lord’s Will is always the best. I am grateful that the Savior, in his most desperate moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asked that the cup be removed from him said, “nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.” It wasn’t easy for the Savior of the world. He had to drink from the bitter cup –and he absolutely did not shrink. And if I am to be his disciple and follower, how dare I ask it to be easy for me, when it was never easy for Him. In my experience and through it all, I add my testimony to John’s that when I allow the two ideas of faith that the Lord CAN help me, but also complete submission to his will, I have found greater comfort and peace. I hope one day to know the meaning of all things, but until then, I will walk by faith.

I am humbled by Lindsay’s faith, which strengthens with my own. In dark times, I’ve also tried to hold onto the personal conviction that my Father loves me, even if I can’t reconcile that love with the pain and heartache so abundant in this world. We all have our burdens in life, but the burden Lindsay is bearing–caring for a seriously ill child–is one I have never had to labor under. The blessing I often repeat to myself when things are looking really bad is precisely that: at least my children are safe and healthy.

We are made to suffer. But why does it have to be so much for so many people? I think part of it might simply be that the kind of grace, bravery, love, sacrifice, and fidelity that Lindsay is living is only possible in a life that has both pain and confusion. Perhaps we need this senseless, unfair, chaotic, painful existence because it is what makes virtue possible. Even if that’s the answer, it won’t ever be something that allows us to sleep easy. That’s the point, after all. It doesn’t make sense in this life. So all we can do is what Lindsay is doing: hope to one day know the meaning of all things, and walk by faith until then.