The entire nation — and a large portion of the globe — is groping its way through a tangled mess of Covid-meets-centuries of racism-meets-a murder heard ‘round the world-meets-social unrest, looting, and rioting-meets-protestors finding themselves unable to peaceably assemble without pepper bombs-meets-a seemingly tone-deaf President. Through it all, deep questions about things like truth and God have become commonplace.
I began writing this story in March when everything seemed to begin. Since then, I’ve edited and rewritten countless times. So many words, yet which are the right ones? You who are writers understand. And you who are (still) believers in God understand the weight of attempting to offer readership a take on whether or not the Christian worldview can match the reality we now experience. So the writing and rewriting continued.
Furthermore, trying to delicately choose the tragedy on which to focus is like aiming at a moving target. George Floyd was still breathing when I began writing. His death obviously added a very heavy and important layer of complexity. Then last week, my father-in-law’s brother Paul died from complications of a freak accident, leaving five young men without a dad and without answers. Among the pain endured these last five months by individuals I know personally, it was the agony around Paul’s accident, his weeks in the ICU, and ultimate death that pushed me to get this story out. As many have said these days, silence is not an option.
Across the web, and in personal conversations, I’ve seen and heard profound ponderings being unpacked. Why believe in God in a world so full of evil? If he exists, where was he when Coronavirus peaked, killing thousands each day? Was he on vacation during the years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation — let alone the day Mr. Floyd died at the hands of a man who swore to protect members of their shared community?
And for my wife’s cousins, why did God think it ok for them to spend time planning their dad’s funeral that could have been time spent with their kids, running their businesses, arguing politics with their dad, living their lives?
I’ve written elsewhere about how humans react to tragedy. I argued that prayer as a response to doom and gloom actually makes sense for more than just emotional reasons; and on the flip side, that “sending positive vibes” tends to be a wacky thing completely disconnected from reality. I’ve also compared what we typically mean by “optimistic” with what it means to be truly “hopeful.”
But the tragedies that inspired those stories felt sporadic because the world could catch its collective breath in between. Today, catching one’s breath doesn’t seem to exist.
So, again, the question before us is why to believe in a benevolent God, except perhaps as a mere abstract thought that’s nothing more than a security blanket. Even then, it’s a security blanket that we’re not even sure exists, but whose existence we don’t question because we would hate for anything to tug a thread and unravel it — and thinking too deeply about evil and suffering in our world might do just that.
At the same time, if God does exist, and he is good, isn’t now the time that we need to know it, so that we can lean into him, question him, maybe make some sense of things?
So let’s see if a few threads can hold up to a bit of tugging, shall we?
Consider this from C.S. Lewis (you know him as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia), who wrote in his excellent 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?
The problem of evil can only be a problem if we compare it to some more desirable situation in which we’d prefer to find ourselves. And evil can only be universally agreed on as evil if a better situation is more than just preferable, but is actually a proper situation that should be and ought to be. We have to use the concept of objective morality, which means that “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad” are tied to the object (the badness or goodness itself) rather than the subject (the one judging the badness or goodness). And if morality is objective and not subjective, then it is outside of the opinion of individuals or event collective groups; there is something intrinsic and inherent to, say, the unjust killing of Floyd that helps us recognize (and not arbitrarily label) its badness. There must be a moral law outside of us that says this is wrong. And if there is a moral law outside of us, there must be a moral lawgiver outside of us too.
It’s like this: if an interstate has a speed limit to which citizens are beholden, there had to first be some governing body that decided and implemented that law. It didn’t just exist on its own. Likewise, if there is a universal conviction that (for a horrendously accurate example) torturing a child just for fun is a moral travesty and should never happen, it must have been put into effect by an authority outside us, someone above the whole moral enterprise of the human race. Otherwise, it’s just an opinion. And we all know in our very souls that child torture’s wrongness is not a mere opinion.
This moral-law-giver is therefore the source of Lewis’ straight line, and to be its source, the giver must also be a very straight line himself so that all crooked lines are known to be crooked simply by setting our eyes on his straightness. He can’t merely be someone who walks a straight line, either, or else he also has to explain where he got his idea of straightness. His uncrookedness must be something in his character, part of his very nature.
The recent tragedies are just serving to open the world’s eyes to the daily suffering humans have endured for hundreds of years. It is not only Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting or the empty race-based threats against Dr. Cooper in Central Park. Centuries of wrongs reveal that things in this world ought to be different than they actually are. No sane person is glad for fellow humans to die of starvation, or for sectarian violence to divide families, and so on.
Well, what does such a truth mean? Think: humans across time and geography hold to higher expectations for this world, from within our closed system. These aren’t opinions. It is a factual truth that things are not the way they should be.
But “should” and a concept of a different reality that “should” be our reality... this concept can only exist if there was either an original intention for this world or an original state from which we’ve since deviated. And such intention requires an original cause, a master builder, an author, who set us in our original state or decided that intention at the foundation of our universe — perhaps even before it.
It is a bit off-topic to discuss universe origins, so I’ll briefly say this: I agree with the bulk of the science community that Big Bang cosmology accurately describes the origin point — a singular origin point — of the universe. Well, do we know of anything in existence that was not caused or made by something else? According to that logic, if the universe began to exist at the big bang, then the universe must have a cause. And because an endless chain of causes is a logical impossibility (infinity is only conceptual and cannot be physically manifest in a universe said to be only 13.8 billion years old) somewhere along the way there must be an uncaused primary agent, a first mover. Occam’s razor tells us that if one first mover is just as likely at this point in our logic as two or more, we can stick with just one.
And furthermore, because the universe that was created encompasses all time and space, then this uncaused-cause must be outside of time and space. In the words of former NFL player-turned pastor Miles McPherson, there’s gotta be a “banger” who banged the big bang. That’s our first cause. And that Cause, because he (to choose a pronoun) is outside of time and space, can govern the moral laws of the system he created.
Still with me? Hope so. Here, look at this pretty forest and keep reading.
Now, having established our first cause as the moral-law giver, what can be said then of such a powerful being allowing this pain and suffering to occur? A few things. First, think about the nature of evil. If a huge tree branch falls, is that evil? The answer will be: it depends. If the branch falls softly on the forest floor and does no damage, we can probably agree a tree branch simply falling is not evil. But as you amplify the degrees in this thought experiment — pondering if the giant branch falls on a flower; or on a worm; or on Bambi; or on the hunter; or on your Great Aunt Mildred — we head in a direction of the branch’s fall having moral implications.
The falling branch itself has no inherent evil; we just recognize the tragedy of lost human life occurring due to this otherwise-benign event. And that’s the initiation point of suffering, pain, something we might call evil. If the Coronavirus just sat in a petri dish on a remote island, we wouldn’t care. But because it’s unleashed on the world, we declare war against it as an evil.
This gives us more information: that each human life made by this Creator has inherent value. (This means your life, dear reader, has and will always have value unrelated to how you feel about yourself, how others feel, what you’ve accomplished, what you own, how you spend your time, any right or wrong you’ve done. Please know that.) We all recognize when we agree that things are not the way they should be, which means there must have been/must somewhere out there be a state of being that was/is “the way things should be.”
So far it seems the Creator has a clean record. We’ve been given by him some hope or moral compass toward a better experience.
But I’m not writing a story about humans being valuable. I’m writing because a Creator powerful enough to create us, and careful enough to give us intrinsic worth, seems therefore culpable in the evil endured by his created ones. We even find direct examples in the Christian scriptures of God allowing or bringing suffering upon humans.
So how do we square this? Three words: context, context, context.
If I tell you I saw a mother grab her child by the arm and yank him hard, you’d be alarmed. But if I then told you that the little boy was about to run into traffic, and she had a split second to stop him, it makes sense. If I tell you that when this child grew up, his mother delivered him into the hands of a group of people hunting him down, telling them where and when they could come and capture him, you’d again be concerned. But if I added context that he’s an international drug lord, and the group chasing him is the DEA, her decision is validated. (That poor mom.)
Context is immensely important when understanding a topic as sensitive and nuanced as human suffering. Biblical accounts of God sending plagues and the like are not given in a vacuum. Rather, we’re provided context of what happened leading up to God’s actions, why he chose this action or that person, and whether he’d given any conditionals beforehand (warnings, promises, etc.).
Let’s take the account at the first Passover as an example (which starts at Exodus 3 with Moses and the Burning Bush; and culminates at Exodus 12 with the institution of the holiday). Moses and the Israelites are slaves in Egypt. Moses, by God’s decree, tells Pharaoh to let Israel go free. He doesn’t; so God sends plagues and locusts and frogs and all sorts of wild signs to Pharaoh and his nation each time Pharaoh declines Moses’ demand. We might question why God would do so much damage. Well, prior to this, Pharaoh did enslave God’s chosen people group in the first place; then Pharaoh mistreated them; then God warned Pharaoh several times to let them go; then Pharaoh made false promises that he’d do it, each time to save his own skin, and then broke those promises. Do you see the conditions under which God made his choices?
We ought to pause a moment to admit how short we’ll come of complete understanding when we are mortal humans examining the thoughts, ways, and heart of a Creator big and wise enough to make all that is — a God so supremely good that he set the standard for goodness by which we’ve measured every act of wrong and injustice since the dawn of time.
The creature cannot fully know the mind of the creator. It’s a bit like how a young child cannot know the whole mind of her father. But in both cases, the progeny can see the heart of the father by his actions and intentions, and they reveal much.
As a father, for example, I’m currently teaching my four-year-old how to ride without training wheels. (The whole world is teaching their preschoolers to ride without training wheels right now. What the heck else are we supposed do when schools, playgrounds, theme parks, and pools are closed?!) When she seems ready, I’m going to let go; and I know she might fall, but I also know the benefits outweigh the risks. Or another way to say it, the long-term good that will emerge is worth the suffering she’s likely to endure leading to it.
God can be like this too — allowing suffering for a greater purpose. Here’s an example: a family of sisters and a brother — Mary, Martha and Lazarus — are noted several places in scripture as friends to Jesus of Nazareth. One of the best-known examples of their closeness is when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, recorded in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John. But prior to the miracle, Jesus was actually given advanced notice that Lazarus was sick. And in those days, sick pretty much meant dying.
So did Jesus rush over and immediately heal him, as he was known to do? Nope. He stayed where he was, in a town many miles away. By the time Jesus actually did head to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days!! (As the King James Version puts it, “by this time he stinketh.”) Jesus had the power and the time to go heal his sick friend and prevent his death, but he chose not to.
The mourning heart cries, “Why?” (And hopefully the skeptical mind cries, “Why would a made-up story include such a blemish on the good teacher’s record?”)
Well, the fact that the raising of Lazarus from the dead is such a well-known narrative gives us a clue to Jesus’ motives. And in his own words, Jesus explains as much: “This sickness will not lead to death, but to God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And again, “Lazarus has died, and I am glad for your sake that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Then Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, everyone cheered, and the story went viral. #FunWithAnachronisms
Jesus knew the conclusion of this travesty would be so incredible that it would quickly eclipse the suffering endured up to that point. This did not, however, diminish the reality of the suffering that was experienced— even for Jesus. On the contrary, here we have one of Jesus’ most empathetic moments. He wept with his friends, as the apostle John records in his biography. Knowing full well that he was moments away from resuscitating Lazarus, Jesus was so moved by the mourning of his friends and the many visitors who came to grieve, that he himself felt the very same emotions just as strongly.
Jesus, who was himself God “veiled in flesh” as the Christmas song puts it, was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” according to what the prophet Isaiah foretold of him ~700 years prior to his birth.
This is something I hope my wife’s cousins understand about Jesus, through whom all things were made, including their mourning hearts. Including their dad. Including you and me.
Well, we’re 10 minutes into this story, and I’ve yet to directly address the particular sufferings that we’re experiencing right now, and whether they disprove God. We still don’t know exactly why God has allowed racist acts to go unchecked in America since her founding… or discrimination of all stripes throughout written history… or for George, Breonna, Ahmaud, and many more like them, to be murdered… or for the novel Coronavirus to wreak havoc on health, jobs, communities, families.
We don’t know why Dave ending his story here. Are there no good direct answers to these questions?
No, fortunately, these quandries do have satisfying resolutions, and I will share them. But I want to respect your time as a reader, plus having the urgency to get the rest of this piece written and published helps. If I know a cliff-hanging Part 1 is already in readers’ hands, then completing Part Deux will be a fire under my seat! So hold fast; answers are coming.
UPDATE! Part Two is now complete. I hope this helps you continue a journey of consideration.