I’m picking up now where I left off in the last post.
For those who don’t want to read Part 1, here is a summary: If we are going to make moral judgments about whether God is “evil,” we are going to have to make those judgments in the same way we would make them about people. In that connection, I have suggested that it is not enough to say that anyone who causes suffering is “evil” because such a definition doesn’t take into account such person’s motivations or purposes. Instead, I have proposed a more robust definition which takes into account at least two possibilities: (1) that, as is the case with anyone who has been to the dentist, inflicting short-term sufferingmay be in the long-term best interests of another AND (2) inflicting sufferering may be necessary to end or prevent one who is intent themselves on causing suffering (that is, suffering to bring about justice). We could not characterize someone as evil if they are acting in one of these two ways, even though they may cause someone else to suffer.
It is at this point that I think we can begin to see what is going on in the Christian scriptures. Again and again, the central question is this: why doesn’t God end suffering? The book of Job, which Matheson describes in his post, is a great example. It is likely the oldest book in our bibles, and it gets down to precisely that issue: Why, God, am I made to suffer? Job believes and trusts God even though he suffers at God’s hands. Why would he do this? we are made to ask ourselves.
As I read Job the central issue is not to explain suffering – which is only done in a very cryptic way during the first few chapters. It is to ask the question Should I continue to worship God when I suffer in ways that have no meaing to me?
Later, the Psalmists will again and again pose the same question. God’s chosen people live in suffering under pagan kings. Why doesn’t God fix this situation as he has promised?
Answers to these questions – within the biblical text – are few and far between, and they are never fully satisfying.
What is remarkable here is not that human suffering raises the question of whether God is evil – that much ought to be apparent to anyone – but that so many people who claimed to have experiences of God were convinced that he was good in spite of the all of the “evidence” to the contrary. (“I know that my Redeemer lives” Job proclaims, at a time when his suffering has reached its apex!)
Equally remarkable is this: I am aware of no serious religious teaching about God which contends that he inflicts pain in the way Matheson hypothecises – purely out of indifference or spite. Why, given all of the “evidence” of seemingly meaningless human suffering, has no one ever claimed to have a relationship or encounter with a God who is known in this way?
What is going on here? There are very few options, I think – and I won’t address them all here. I will only say that, one must at least consider the possibility that these people really did, as they claimed, have an encounter and relationship (either individually or within their community) with a living God whom they were convinced, because of the nature and strength of that relationship, was acting in their best interest.
Lets run with that possibilty for just a moment (I only ask a skeptic to consider it as a possibility at this stage), and consider what Christians believe about God and suffering.
The claim that Christians make, which follows in the tradition of Israel, is that present suffering – while not fully explainable – serves some purposes that are ultimately in the best interests of mankind and of our world. In that sense, we can say that God is “good” in spite of the fact that he allows, or even inflicts, suffering. God, we believe, is moving the universe to a place where pain and suffereing will ultimately end.
Paul, in particular, wrestles with this issue in his letter to the Romans. You can read part of that letter here. He concludes his line of thought by suggesting that present suffering and “wrath” for certain people may be for a greater purpose that God has in mind, which Paul ultimately understands to be the restoration of God’s creation into a state where suffering (he will call this “sin and death”) no longer exist. Suffering which originates from God somehow serves that end.
In a sense, the suffering of Jesus on the cross can be seen as God’s “answer” to our questions about suffering. But its not an answer in the sense of providing knowledge about the why’s and wherefores – it is an answer which says that, whatever God’s purposes may be in human suffering – purposes that we may not understand, God is willing to put himself on the line as well. He is willing to suffer right alongside us..
Similarly, the resurrection of Jesus can be seen as a promise of the future – a way of saying that God’s world, free of suffering and death, is real and on its way.
This way of thinking is, of course, a lot different than some of the “pat” answers that Christian evangelicals will give, and it sounds like Matheson has had more than his fill of those answers. I don’t blame him at all for becoming a skeptic if he’s never been exposed to anything else.
Also, I don’t write this to convince non-believers that God is real and he is good. (Thats a bit ambitious for two blog posts!). I only write it to open up the possibility for some of you – including Chris if he’s still reading – that, properly expressed, Christianity appreciates and “deals with” this problem in ways that you may not discern from a conversation with a typical, conservative evangelical.