“The problem of life [for many] is that Man, with his limited wisdom, cannot discern any overall purpose running consistently through life’s experiences . . . he is overwhelmed with the meaninglessness of human existence as he sees it.” He further believes that “the tragedy of life is heightened by the intense realization that the problem of existence must be answered within the brief span between birth and death . . . [and] “the problem of death . . . hangs like a dark shadow . . .” Bernhard W. Anderson
That makes me think of Christianity and the problem of suffering. Generally speaking, there are certain people we go to for answers to certain problems. When it comes to the problem of suffering we do not, as a rule, go to auto mechanics, bakers, bank tellers, postal workers, or mathematicians. As a rule, when we seek an answer to the problem of suffering, we go to our clergy. We go to priests, ministers, and pastors.
But we shouldn’t. In fact, they are the very last people we should be going to. My advice to someone seeking an answer to the problem of suffering parallels the fire chief’s words: Wherever you do, don’t go to the clergy. If you want to know why we suffer, go anywhere, ask anyone, but do not, under any circumstances, consult a committed member of the Christian religious system. You will get a better answer from auto mechanics, bakers, bank tellers, postal workers, or mathematicians.
But more about that later. First, let’s look at the answers you will get from the Christian system. For the sake of clarity, I will divide it into three camps: Arminianism, Soft Calvinism (or Infralapsarianism) and Hard Calvinism (or Supralapsarianism). First, Arminianism. You already know all about this one. It can be summed up in two words: Free Will. We have suffering in the world because humans have abused their free will.
Next up -- Soft Calvinism or Infralapsarianism. On this model, free will plays a role, but not a decisive one. Exactly how decisive is anyone’s guess. It depends on the particular Calvinist you are talking to at the moment. He will blame it on God in one breath, then on man in the next. He will employ free will when needed, then disregard it just as quickly. This system is neither here nor there; God sort of wanted sin, sort of didn’t; it happened via His sovereign will, but He’s very angry at it, and so on and so forth. In my book The Calvinist Universalist I describe it this way:
From eternity past God intended that the most vivid and profound demonstration of His glory would come in the form of His work of salvation on the cross of Christ.
God then made man to punish him.
He made him perfect and thus unlikely to ever need punishing, or, for that matter, a Savior.
By a happy coincidence, and against all the odds, this perfect man sinned, thus allowing God to fulfill His purposes for both the man and Christ.
When he sinned, God, who is suddenly confronted with the prospect of being able to fulfill all of His original plans, becomes furious.
Well, not quite. I’m not ready to give up just yet. Remember I said you can find better answers from the auto mechanics, bakers, bank tellers, postal workers, or mathematicians. And that we would get back to them. Well, let’s do that. Let’s chuck the answers given by the Christian religious system, along with all their contradictions, convolutions, evasions, and equivocations, and look outside of the system for answers. So, lets suppose you’re going through a hard time and you’re discussing it with your auto mechanic. What is he likely to say? Probably something like: You’ll get through this, and you’ll be the better for it. There’s a reason this is happening to you. Remember, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Admittedly, that’s a very general statement. It hardly constitutes a theodicy. But it can be if we examine the theological assumptions underlying the statement. One thing’s for sure: these assumptions do not accord well with those that comprise our three theological systems. You’re not suffering because of your free will decisions. The trial in your life has a positive purpose; it was not an unfortunate byproduct of unwanted events, which God then incorporated into His plan for you. No, the evil is there as part of God’s original plan; He is using it to mold you. In his book The Creation of Evil, John Noe writes:
No subject throughout the history of all religious thought has been so difficult to deal with as the idea that there is a divine purpose or purposes for evil in our world. Sensitive Christians, especially, have reacted with horror at the mere suggestion that a loving Creator God even allows humans and animals to suffer some horrendous things -- not to mention the biblically revealed fact that He both created evil in the first place and continues to create and send some of it even today . . . Not surprisingly, the vast majority of scholars and theologians have described the intended purpose or purposes of evil as being “unknowable,” “not soluble,” “illogical,” “inexplicable,” “no answer,” “a mystery,” “doesn’t make sense,” “a by-product of freedom,” “hidden,” “not explained,” “no general explanation,” “beyond our capacity to understand,” etc.
Moreover, we cannot make progress without struggle, and for that a backdrop of evil is imperative. Again, it is the very structure of reality. How does a bodybuilder grow his muscles? Through resistance training. There can be no resistance in a world where there’s no pain, no trials, no struggles, no evil. Likewise, there could be no opportunity for moral growth without evil and suffering in the world. How could one develop courage in a world with no danger? Compassion in a world with no suffering? Forgiveness in a world with no injustice? Patience in a world with no frustration? Endurance in a world with no hardship?
And so we live in a world of opposites. Noe writes:
Thus a dualistic dynamic permeates and penetrates almost, if not everything, around us, as “nature always has a double aspect.” So why would God construct his creation this way? As we shall increasingly discover, God, in his omniscience, knew it would be necessary in order to accomplish his purposes for us humans -- physically, morally, emotionally, spiritually, and eternally.
North/South, East/West, up/down, high/low, left/right, in/out, hot/cold, soft/hard, light/heavy, wet/dry, clean/dirty, mountain/valley, fast/slow, large/small, opened/closed, empty/full, positive/negative, plus/minus, protons/electrons, light/day, day/night, winter/summer, past/future, (the present lasts for only the blink of an eye), loud/silent, sweet/sour (bitter), beautiful/ugly, beginning/end, yes/no, true/false, fact/fiction, right/wrong, love/hate, sacred/profane, joy/sadness, sorrow, laughter/tears, justice/injustice, well/sick, hope/despair, pleasure/pain, feast/famine, blessings/cursings, riches/poverty, success/failure, victory/defeat, peace/war, contentment/anger, forgiveness/bitterness, reward/punishment, gain/loss, less/more, growth/decay, young/old, birth/death, and, of course, thesis/antithesis (A/not A), and good/evil.
Consider what a cruel burden Christians have laid on people by insisting that evil and suffering are afterthoughts of God rather than part of His original plan. Consider some of the consequences of this viewpoint:
Denial of Reality Christians must believe the world wasn’t meant to work the way it does. Reality as we know it, consisting of the opposites and antithesis enumerated above, is not really how things ought to be. All people, animals, and the entire universe was meant to exist in a state of absolute perfection from the moment of our creation throughout all eternity.
Guilt The Christian must accept that in a very real sense he, not God, bears the responsibility for the existence of evil and suffering in his own life and in the world in general. Evil is a mystery; we can’t really know why it exists, how it came to be, or why it must go on forever, but we can be absolutely assured of one thing: God didn’t want it; it just kind of popped up, and it’s all our fault. When wrestling with the roots of evil, Christians will find themselves confronted with statements like this one, from Shirley C. Guthrie’s book Christian Doctrine:
Logically, evil is impossible in a world created and ruled by God, for it is just what God did not create and does not will. This is the parasitical power of evil. It is not the truth about who we are and what the world is like: it is a lie, a contradiction, and denial of the truth . . .
Denial of God’s sovereignty No explanation required. God “rules” a universe based on contingency. He waits to see what we do, then adjusts His plans accordingly.
Meaninglessness If God created evil, then we can find meaning in it; if we created it, then it can only cause us to feel guilt.
Makes the Cross itself Inexplicable
“ . . . Starting from . . . The death and resurrection of Christ . . . If the whole creation centers upon this great event, is it not implied that man’s need for salvation was envisaged in God’s creative plan, the presence of evil being a necessary precondition of redemption, and the fall accordingly serving ultimately the highest purpose of setting God as the Savior at the center of His creation?”