Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Loud Absence: Where is God in Suffering?

In this lecture given at Columbia University on September 11, 2012, Dr. John Lennox discusses the problem of evil and suffering. 

He admits that it the most difficult question to answer and that there are no simplistic answers.  Cancer looks different in the eyes of the oncologist than it does to the patient who has been informed they have only months to live.  Evil and suffering must be dealt with on both the intellectual side using reason and the existential side with pastoral care and concern.  In the end the pain and suffering we are most concerned with is our own.

When confronted with the problem, we must deal with the “why” question.  But this is a right brain question, it cannot be broken down, analyzed and rationalized.  Yet answering “why” helps us makes sense of how evil and suffering fits into a worldview and also provides perspective and hope.  If my worldiew cannot meet the objections and difficulties, then it is not worth believing.

Some skeptics argue that there is too much suffering, so there can be no God.  If we grant that, then the problem evaporates and there is nothing we can call evil and suffering.  But does this really solve the problem?

Richard Dawkin’s would have us believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong or justice or evil, that we are just machines for reproducing DNA and we “dance to its music”.  But were people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and other assorted mass murderers and rapists just “dancing to their DNA”?  Yet Dawkins is outraged by evil in spite of his philosophy.  His outrage presupposes an objective standard and he expects others to agree.  If matter/energy is all there is, there is no transcendent, no God, how can there be such a standard?  If there is no good and no evil, the concept of morality disappears and moral outrage is absurd.

But we find ourselves to be moral beings, outraged at evil and suffering.  The existence of objective moral standards is consistent with the existence of God and very difficult to explain without Him.  But the existence of God gives rise to the problem.  Isn’t it obvious that God is part of the problem, not the solution?  What of all the evil and acts of violence committed by those who call themselves Christians?  How do I respond?  I am completely and utterly ashamed of it.  I am ashamed that the name of Jesus Christ has ever been associated with violence.  Those who commit violence in the name of Christ are not obeying Christ, they are disobeying everything he taught.

John Lennon would have us “Imagine” a world with no religion, no heaven, no hell.  But John Lennox asks us to “Imagine” a world with no Taliban, no Northern Ireland, no 9/11, no Hitler, no Stalin, no Mao, no Pol Pot.

Then there is the problem of justice – we all feel we deserve to get justice.  If atheism is true, then death is the end and there is no ultimate justice.  Millions never have and never will get justice.  The promised utopia has never come.  How can you believe in justice when the vast majority of humanity will never get it?  For the Christian, justice will be served, but it is not the justice of an angry God.  The only thing that gets God angry is that which destroys life – sin.

But there are those who don’t like a God who judges.  Why doesn’t He just stop evil?  Well, what if He did, but he starts with you?  But you really don’t want Him intervening in your life.  We are not just spectators.  G.K. Chesterton responded to the question “What is wrong with the world?” in the London Times with the following, “Dear Sir, I am, Yours Faithfully, G.K. Chesterton”.  We must recognize that we are part of the problem.  So to ask, “If God exists, then why is there evil?” is the wrong question.  The correct question is “If God exists, then why does He tolerate me?”

God could have created us without the capacity for moral evil.  Yet He has created creatures without that capacity, we call them animals.  We have created things without that capacity, we call them robots.  (A side note, for an interesting exploration of this, see Star Trek the Next Generation episode “In Theory”)  God created us with free will and the ability to choose and in doing that God took a risk.

This doesn’t apply to natural evil.  Earthquakes are the result of techtonic plate activity.  But that is essential to life.  It becomes an evil to us when we build inadequate structures in areas susceptible to them.  Could God have made electricity that doesn’t electrocute?  Fire that doesn’t burn?  A world that can sustain life without techtonic plate activity, hurricanes, bacteria, . . .?  What about other “earthquakes”, like heart attacks, cancer, etc.?

Dr. Lennox and I admit that we have no ultimate answer.

Then there is another question: We see glimpses of the good and beautiful even in tragedies, but what of the preventable evil and suffering?  We can argue about what a good God could, would, should or might have done.  If we grant the world is like this, with good and evil, pain and beauty, hatred and love, is there any evidence anywhere that there is a God who can be trusted with it?  Has God made provision big enough with the fact that humans have gone their own way?

This brings us back to justice.  There must be a judgment, and I will have to face it.  Atheism has no way out.  But how does Christianity face it?  At the cross – the heart of Christianity.  If Jesus is God, and He was crucified for that claim, then what is God doing on a cross?  The answer to this question is the most profound answer of all – God suffered with us.  He has not remained distant but He has become a part of it.  He suffered for me, who made a mess of my own life.  There are some who cannot live with the mess, they have no way out, there is no meaning, so they commit suicide.  But there is a way out, a source of meaning.  The death of Christ is not the end, He rose from the dead.  If I could see what God has done with those who have suffered, instead of questioning, I’d probably bow my head and worship.  God knows how to compensate.

To watch the video of this lecture, go here.


That you may know, Roger

4 comments:

Andrew Ryan said...

"Richard Dawkin’s [sic] would have us believe that there is no such thing as right or wrong or justice or evil"

Do you have a cite for this? I've never heard Dawkins say anything like this.

"How can you believe in justice when the vast majority of humanity will never get it? "

That's a reason to fight for justice as much as possible in this life; it's not a reason to be defeatist and give up completely. That's like saying why try to feed starving people when you can't help them all.

"We can argue about what a good God could, would, should or might have done. "

Sure - a God who knew in advance who would freely chosen him could have populated the world only with those people. If the rest of humanity needed to exist too, he could have made soulless robots to fill their roles. Then no hell would be needed and the pre-destined suffering of the damned could be avoided.

"The existence of objective moral standards is consistent with the existence of God and very difficult to explain without Him."

The moral disgust many people feel at the genocide ordered by the OT God is very difficult to explain if the standard is supposed to come from the same God.

Roger Adlon said...

Hi Andrew,

Here are Dawkin's quotes:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, 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 that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we would expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

“DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

I think my summary of Dr. Lennox's comments is accurate. You may wish to listen to the lecture yourself and point out where I am misinterpreting Dr. Lennox.

Justice - The point Dr. Lennox made is that no matter how much we fight for justice in this life, if atheism is true then there is no ultimate justice, it will never be fully and perfectly served. Are you saying that Theists (Christians) don't fight for justice?

Freewill, Robots and Predestination will be addressed in this weeks post. But what do you mean by predestination? Are you at all familiar with the different thinking among Christians about this - Calvinism, Molinism, Arminianism?

Why do you feel disgust at the God of the OT? If Dawkins is correct, it wasn't right or wrong or unjust or just. The Israelites were just dancing to their DNA and they danced better than the Canaanites. If natural selection is true, then isn't the "genocide" of Canaan just survival of the fittest?

Have a little hope on me, Roger

Andrew Ryan said...

"Why do you feel disgust at the God of the OT"

I was making a general statement about most bible readers feelings regarding the God-commanded genocide in the OT. Such passages are seen as problematic by any thinking apologist, even if they believe that one can ultimately justify them.

Your quotes from Dawkins show he is merely saying that the universe appears to be one without a divine commander who cares for the welfare of us or other animals. Instead it's a universe where suffering (and non-suffering) simply occurs. He's saying the universe is indifferent to us.

"Are you saying that Theists (Christians) don't fight for justice?"

I was making no comment at all on whether or not theists fight for justice. I was showing that it doesn't follow that no heaven/hell means there's no point in fighting for justice in this life.

"But what do you mean by predestination?"

My point rests only on the notion that God would know who is destined for heaven and hell. If you do dispute that then you're disputing an all-knowing God.

Andrew Ryan said...

Reading the full 'Dancing to our DNA' quote in context shows that it wasn't a statement about free will or good/evil in humans. He was comparing DNA to nature, referencing Houseman's quote. Note, despite the 'dancing' part, he's not saying WE are heartless and witless, any more than he's saying we know nothing, just that we're built by DNA in turn built by nature, not God.

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music." River out of Eden (1995) p.133

Another point, I never suggested you were misinterpreting Lennox.