Several members of my family have become big fans of Supernatural, the long-running TV series about 2 brothers,Sam and Dean, who hunt and kill monsters. Along the way they have fought demons, met angels, started the “apocalypse,” tried to assassinate Lucifer, gone to hell and heaven. You would think this would be just my cup of tea but somehow it doesn't grab me like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who have.
But one thing Dean, the older son, said in an episode struck me as we binge-watched. The “apocalypse” has begun, Sam and Dean have been killed and find themselves in heaven and an angel tells them that God is absent and is not going to fight the devil or the end of the world. Dean, still smarting from learning certain bad things about his own father, sneers about God being “another deadbeat dad.” And certainly that is what a lot of people think when they see what is going on in the world. If God is loving, how come there is such evil in the world? Why are people allowed to murder one another? Why do people get raped? Why are little girls kidnapped by warlords and little boys turned into child soldiers? Why are poverty and violence and substance abuse allowed to destroy families and entire communities? Why do we suffer?
Whole books have been written about this and due to time constraints my treatment of it will not be as thorough as the subject demands. But it seems to me as if people who ask this either want God to (a) strike dead anyone who does wrong or (b) restrain people from doing wrong. Both of these would effectively render our freewill moot.
In the first case, there would be a heck of a lot of dead bodies in such a world. And it seems unreasonable to kill everyone for every sin. There would have to be a graduated scale based on severity of the sin but how would it be set up? Should God only strike dead those who kill? What about those who merely beat or cripple others? What about those who, through financial trickery, destroy people's lives by causing their companies to fail, their jobs to go away, or by compromising their ability to afford their home? Should God simply inflict such people with excruciating pain? How small a sin would excuse one from immediate painful punishment? Such a world would still have suffering and, what's more, widespread fear and emotional trauma among the general populace. People wouldn't be likely to transgress nor would they be inclined to do much of anything else. They would avoid taking initiative lest they face a moral dilemma where they must choose the lesser of 2 evils (and punishments) or accidentally break a rule and get zapped. I don't see this as an improvement over the world we live in.
The second alternative is that God directly intervene to restrain all persons who try to harm others. This reminds me of the restraint chair at the jail. When an inmate gets violent, the officers put him in a wheeled chair that is tilted back, has a concave form of the human body and arm, leg, and torso straps. A nurse checks the patient's vital signs and circulation every 15 minutes. It is designed to keep the person from hurting himself or others. So should God do the equivalent, like, say, freeze people at the point they are about to something wrong. That's less drastic than killing them. But intermittent paralysis would be pretty awful to experience. It would emphasize how little control one had over one's life. It would make people passive. But it would not make people better. In fact, by stopping the consequences of one's acting out, many people would probably get very frustrated and bitter. They would become passive-aggressive in their interactions, seeing just how nasty they could get without triggering punishment. The world would become like a very unpleasant police state.
God did not create us to be robots, programmed so that we cannot choose to do anything but what is good. True, if he had there would be no evil. But also no love, because love needs to be voluntary. Love has to be a choice. It's not really love if you can't help but love someone. That's compulsion. I think few people would give up their basic ability to choose in order to have a world with no negative consequences to one's actions.
Which brings us back to the state of the world as it is. People can chose to do harm and what they intend to do, they can do, letting others suffer the consequences of their bad choices. Bad things happen to some good people. And some bad people appear to have pretty good lives. In fact a recent scientific study has shown that not only do the victims of bullying suffer long-term negative effects, like anxiety and panic disorders and depression but the bullies themselves, provided they are not victims of bullying by someone else, tend to have very low blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (or CRP). This is a biomarker of chronic inflammation and high levels of CRP are tied to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. So in this regard, bullying seems to pay off! (Although one researcher points out that bullies are more likely to have bad school attendance, which can lead to an impoverished life, and are more likely to be in a gang and carry a weapon, which increases their risk of traumatic injury and early death, thus negating the health benefit.)
So does letting us have free will and letting the consequences of that play out in this world make God indistinguishable from an deadbeat or absentee dad?
What if the problem was not that Father is absent so much as ignored by his children? What if what is keeping us from experiencing God's love is not him but our refusal to listen to him or to have a good relationship with him? While I talk to many inmates whose parents and siblings are also in prison, there are a surprising number whose parents and siblings have never been criminals. Good parents can have kids go wrong. There is no infallible formula for predicting who will go bad.
In today's gospel Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” Yeah, but Jesus hasn't returned yet. So we are still left without him, right? Wrong. Because Jesus isn't talking about the Second Coming. He goes on to say, “On that day you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.” He is talking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jump back 3 verses where Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him or knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” We are not orphaned because the Spirit of God is with us and, as of that first Pentecost, in us.
The Spirit in us enables us to do what we ordinarily could not—like obey Jesus' commandments. Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” He immediately follows this up by saying, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth...” The Spirit is essential to following Jesus. Jesus was empowered by the Spirit and as his disciples, we must be as well. We cannot hope to live like him unless his Spirit is in us. And if we follow his commands by the power of his Spirit, we should avoid a lot of misery. In Romans 13, speaking about the commandment to love one's neighbor, Paul writes, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” If the people of this world truly loved one another as Christ commanded, most of our problems would resolve themselves and most new troubles would never arise.
There is a You Tube video in which a dentist finishes fixing a man's teeth and the patient says, “Thank God!” The dentist questions the idea that there is a God. He points out all the wars and problems in the world as evidence of God's absence. The patient then says that he doesn't believe in dentists. After all, there are a lot of people going around with broken, infected and missing teeth. The dentist replies that he can't help it if people are too stupid to go to a dentist. The patient says, “Exactly. And it's the same way with God. He can't help anyone who doesn't come to him but insists on doing things their own way.”
There is a lot of truth there. Countless people have found in God help for their problems: their anger, their addictions, their arrogance, their anxieties, their aimlessness, their sadness, their loneliness, their hatred and/or fear of others. I've cited before how science has shown that people who worship weekly do better both mentally and physically, even living longer on average than those who don't. It's rather like exercise: a readily available remedy for many of life's ills that costs nothing but commitment. And yet a lot of folks don't make use of God. In the US, the most religious of the first world countries, less that a third of people regularly attend worship, according to a new anonymous survey. You can't blame God for not helping the 70% of folks who don't want his help.
But some will object, “What about those who are religious and yet suffer and even die?” How can we say God is a loving Father to those people?”
In one of my Bible studies at the jail I had an inmate who was afraid he had lost his salvation because he cursed God when an 8 year old girl he knew died of a disease that had afflicted her most of her short life. Initially I primarily dealt with his problem. He of course was worried about the so-called unforgivable sin. I explained that Jesus was speaking of those so screwed up that they attributed his good works of healing to the devil. People who see good as evil and evil as good cannot be forgiven because they will not ask for forgiveness. If they do not recognize goodness, they will not desire or seek it. It's like in Pakistan, where people will not go to international healthcare workers for vaccinations. That's because, as the CIA recently admitted, such drives were used for espionage. The effect of this is that Pakistan has one of the highest rates of polio in the world and also that terrorists now target healthcare workers thinking they are American spies. If this attitude is not changed, people will not seek medical help. And if people think the healing work of the Spirit is evil, they will not come to God for healing or forgiveness. By their own hand they are closing the door on the possibility of being forgiven.
But Jesus said in the same passage that blaspheming against him, the Son of Man, was forgivable. And indeed from the cross, Christ asked his Father to forgive those who were in the act of crucifying him. Why is insulting Jesus not also unforgivable? Because you really have to get to know Jesus to accept him. Initially, people tend to approach him as a mere human, capable of both good and evil. They may initially insult him by thinking him wrong in his words or his actions. But upon really getting to know him, they may rethink their original reaction and become a follower of Jesus. Many people, like C.S. Lewis, C.E.M. Joad, Alister McGrath, Dame Cicely Saunders, Malcolm Muggeridge, Anna Haycraft, Dawn Eden, Chai Ling, Francis Collins, Kang Kew Iew, and others have come from disbelief in God to devout Christianity.
I assured the inmate that Jesus will not cast out any who come to him and repent. He did not attribute a good action of the Spirit to the devil. He questioned whether the death of a child, viewed by all as a bad thing, could be the act of a good God. And that is the question I really want to look at.
Why does God allow the innocent to suffer? As I have said before, this is not a line of argument to present to people who are in the throes of suffering from a loss. Not only is it up to them to find a meaning to the painful parts of their lives, giving them a glib neat answer is wrong--for two reasons. First, it can alienate them from God if you suggest that “there is a reason,” that “it is God's will,” that “God needed the person with him” or anything else along that line. If God has not personally appeared to you and told you why that specific person is suffering, it is presumptuous to give your reasoning as God's. Second, a reason, no matter how logical, will probably not bring comfort. If you lose a child, it is of no solace to know that there is neat logical reason for your loss. When people are sad, rationality is neither needed nor heeded. Simply to be there for them, showing Christlike compassion and love, is the best you can offer.
But that doesn't mean that the abstract problem of the suffering by the innocent cannot or should not ever be wrestled with. Indeed it gets blamed for people falling away from the faith so often we must examine it. 1 Peter 3 tells us to be ready to give an accounting for the hope within us. Even scripture devotes a whole book, Job, to the problem.
We've already seen the problem of trying to conceive of a world in which others cannot make an innocent person suffer. You either have to remove everyone's freewill or alter the physical consequences of harmful acts. People thus become either puppets or ineffectual in their interaction with the world. But what of the kind of suffering caused by what insurance outfits call “acts of God?” What do we make of cancer in those who never smoked, heart disease in those who have not lived on a diet consisting of fried, salty processed foods, or mental illnesses that erupt just when a young person is on the cusp of adulthood?
One factor, which we know from science, is that these are all physical ailments with physical causes. Smoking can increase one's risk of cancer but it is not the only cause. Likelihood of heart disease goes up with poor eating and lack of exercise but there are other causes as well. Mental illnesses are increasingly seen as arising from the structure of the brain itself, so that by medical imaging one can recognize the brain of a person with schizophrenia or autism or sociopathy. fMRIs show us how the brain functions differently in those with Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's or epilepsy or alcoholism. These things can be the result of what we do to our bodies and brains or what is done to them by others or by viruses or by the DNA we inherit. Often for these things to arise there need to be several factors working together. A neuroscientist was startled to find that he himself had the brain of a sociopath. He posits his loving upbringing for his being a bit coldblooded and ruthless at times but not a violent criminal like some in his family tree. Australian researchers found a gene implicated in a specific form of depression. But not all who have this gene have a greater risk of depression. It seems to be triggered by having a major trauma in one's childhood. A similar scenario plays out with our veterans. War is hell but why do only 12.5% of soldiers suffer from PTSD? A recent study found that pre-war psychological vulnerabilities were as important as trauma and combat in a soldier developing PTSD. In other words, when you combine life-threatening or traumatic combat experiences with childhood physical abuse and/or a family history of substance abuse, you get an individual who is at a much greater risk for the physical changes in the brain called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Similarly standing on the edge of a roof puts you at much greater risk of falling and suffering the physical consequences on your body. Whether you voluntarily stood there or were forced onto there, whether you jumped or were pushed, is, in terms of the damage, irrelevant. It's nothing personal; it's gravity, the same force that keeps us all from flying off of this spinning planet and into airless space. So one contributing factor in suffering is that we live in a physical universe where forces both big and small, both visible to the eye and invisible, both willed and unwilled, have impacts and consequences.
As I said, such a cold rational answer provides little comfort. It's like giving the formula for mass and velocity as an answer to a parent wondering why their child was killed by a car. Logical reasons do little to help us in our grief.
These being the facts, the question seems to shift not to why do people suffer from these natural causes of disease and injury but why do others not? But even that question is not the correct one. People suffer even when they are physically unharmed. Many veterans suffering from PTSD were never in combat. So how can they suffer? Let's take a guy in the motor pool. He says good bye to a friend driving a combat vehicle on a routine mission. Later he finds out that his friend (or friends) were killed by an IED. The person from the motor pool was not touched physically but nevertheless finds himself traumatized by his loss. His wounds may not be visible but they are just as real. And science is still working out the mechanism here.
The real question then is not why do some suffer while others don't. We all suffer from pain and loss, emotional or physical trauma, to some degree. But why do some recover when others don't? Take the sick child. I'm sure her parents, friends and family all prayed for her. People inevitably do in such cases. And when the child recovers we thank God. The pain and suffering in the child's life is seen as prologue to their recovery. The negative sensations fade. But what about those who don't get better but die? Why didn't God save them? Why would a good God not heal everyone, especially when they do go to him?
I do not know. I do not know why God heals some but not others. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. (Neither do doctors know why they can heal some folks and yet the same techniques and drugs do not cure others. Nor do they know why some people survive despite what should be unbeatable odds.) But if physical life is all there is, then there is no justice to who lives and who dies. Without an afterlife, who could blame us for railing against God? This would be the only arena for his actions and seen that way, they do seem to fall short.
Jesus says, “Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:19) Jesus said this before his death and resurrection but this is especially true afterward. Only the resurrection of the dead makes the woes of this world tolerable. Only if our physical death is not our end, only if we are given new and improved bodies--immortal ones--can suffering on any scale be let go. Only then can we say with Paul, “ I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) Since my neck surgery, I no longer dwell on the years of pain I suffered. I am grateful that it is behind me. Over eternity the effects of our suffering will fade to nothingness.
When we are living with God in his new creation where there is no death or mourning or crying or pain, we will be able to fully forgive those who harmed us, as if they had merely stepped on our toes. But that's the future. For now we have Jesus' presence in the form of his Spirit, assuring us that this is our destination, that the current “vale of tears” is temporary, that our sufferings will end when he wipes away our tears. And we will know we were never orphaned.