Answering an Atheist: A Theology of Suffering

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Christianity has a specific theology of suffering, which is absent in atheism, for in atheism suffering is basically meaningless. In fact, in atheism everything is meaningless: people might try to find meaning, but there is no real, objective meaning to anything, if, as atheism teaches, all events are random. Our lives were not planned if there is no God who planned them. Our lives are simply the result of the random collision of molecules. That is what I mean by meaningless. If you want to believe that the random collision of molecules that brought about your existence has meaning, you are free to do so. Nevertheless, such a position is incoherent and illogical.

God has a purpose for suffering. We do not always know the exact purpose in every case. If we did, the Bible would be intolerably long. The Bible gives guidelines and principles. I crave your indulgence while I seek to explain.

First, God has inflicted suffering on the creation, and especially mankind, because of sin. Death exists in the world because of sin. And the miseries of this life that lead to death occur because of sin. Because all people (including Christians) are sinners, all people (including Christians) are subject to suffering. Sometimes we suffer because of our own sin and foolishness. (God does not always spare us from the natural consequences of our actions). Sometimes we suffer because of the sins of others. In those cases, God uses the sins of others for his own purposes, which are often hidden from us. In reality, however, there is no such individual as an “innocent victim.” As far as our relationship to the Creator is concerned, we are all guilty, as I have explained before by the doctrine of the fall. Therefore, whatever suffering we experience in this life, whether in our bodies or in our souls, we deserve from the hand of a righteous and just God. The Bible is full of examples of God punishing people for their sins, whether directly or by a human instrument. For example, God drowned the population of earth in Noah’s day, and he rained fire and brimstone upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God did that, he was punishing the wicked as an example of what all men deserve. Jesus addressed a similar issue when he was asked about a terrible atrocity that had taken place in Jerusalem:

There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:1-4)

Notice how Jesus responds. First, he denies that the victims of that atrocity (a violent bloodbath caused by Pilate’s soldiers) were greater sinners than the other people of Jerusalem; second, he denies that those who were crushed under the rubble of a tower were greater sinners than the other people of Jerusalem; and third, he warns that worse judgment is to come so that the people must repent (turn from their sins) or they will perish. A similar statement could be made about people who are caught up in violence and natural or manmade disasters today: they are no better or worse than those who were spared; therefore, you better repent or you will perish in the judgment. 

In fact, the only truly innocent person who ever suffered was Jesus: he did not deserve to suffer and die, and nobody suffered as much as he did. But the beautiful truth of the gospel is that he was willing to die for sinners who did and do deserve to die. His death on the cross pays for the sins of God’s people, so that they, even though they still suffer in this life, will not perish in hell forever. 

Second, the Bible teaches very clearly and without any embarrassment that God not only “allows” suffering to happen, but that he sends it. A god who is not in perfect control of all events, including events, even sinful acts, that cause suffering, is not the God of the Bible. Such a god is not sovereign; therefore, such a god is not worthy of worship. The people in the Bible believed and understood this. They attributed all events, great and small, good and bad, to the hand of God. Christians who believe the Bible and take its message seriously believe this too. Two examples from the Old Testament will suffice. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, suffered terribly: his brothers sold him into slavery into Egypt; and he was falsely accused and imprisoned. But look at how he understood it, for later he said to his brothers:

I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life . . . And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God?  But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive (Genesis 45:4b-5; 50:19-20).

Notice what Joseph does: first, he does not deny that his brothers’ deeds were evil, for they “meant evil;” but second, he looks beyond those deeds to the hand of God: God, who is sovereign over all things, so directed the lives of Joseph and his brothers to bring Joseph to Egypt. Joseph is not angry or bitter against God for this: he worships God and acknowledges God’s great wisdom in so directing events in his life. God is blameless, for God has directed the sinful deeds of men without being corrupted by them. God has not changed. Even now, he is directing all events, even the sins of men.

The second example is Job, who is legendary for his suffering. In one day, Job’s property was plundered, Job’s ten children died, and Job was afflicted with a terrible disease. The culprits were marauding bandits and Satan, who used a wind to destroy the house of Job’s children and smote Job with painful boils. Nevertheless, Job looks beyond the human, natural, and Satanic causes, and sees the hand of God. Job’s response is one of faith:

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly (Job 1:20-22).

Had Job seen only the instruments that God used, he might have angrily cursed the thieves who stole his cattle; he might have cursed “his bad luck” that the wind had blown down his children’s house; or he might have cursed Satan who sent the boils. Worse, he might have cursed God, which is what Satan wanted him to do, and which is what Satan expected him to do. Instead, Job worshipped and blessed God

Job’s faith in God was sorely tested, for even his wife encouraged him to curse God. 

Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10).

Job sharply rebukes his wife for her foolish words. His argument is clear—we receive good from God’s hand (as Job said earlier, “the Lord gave”). Therefore, we ought also to receive evil (as Job said earlier, “the Lord hath taken away”). Job understood that all things, whether good health or sickness, whether riches or poverty, whether children or childlessness or bereavement, whether life or death, come from God. The Christian who takes the Bible seriously believes the same thing. The unbeliever, who does not believe in God and certainly does not trust in him, is at a loss when tragedy happens to him. As a Christian pastor, I can come to my congregation when they face a terrible affliction and can remind them that the affliction is from God. If it is from God, there must be a reason behind it. To the Christian I can give the comfort that God uses affliction for the good of his children. There is no such comfort for the unbeliever who simply has to follow the philosophy of the atheist standard bearer, Richard Dawkins:

“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” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). 

Third, the Bible teaches that God uses suffering for the good of his children. Now, let me be very clear—not all people are God’s children. Unbelievers are not God’s children. Only believers are God’s children. Jesus taught this when he confronted unbelievers in Israel: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (John 8:44). Unbelievers, therefore, have no reason to believe that God uses suffering for their good. Quite the contrary: God uses both prosperity and affliction for the destruction of the wicked. All the events in the lives of the wicked and unbelieving serve God's purpose to destroy them: "The Lord hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4). That is a terrifying thought, one which should make the unbeliever repent, lest he be destroyed in God's anger. Nevertheless, the New Testament is full of examples of how evil serves God's people, but one will suffice: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). If all things work together for good for God’s children, nothing is excluded. Disease, persecution, bereavement, and death, and everything else—these work together for good. No wonder that the apostle Paul can make such a triumphant conclusion:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39)

In fact, according to the New Testament suffering prepares the Christian for future glory, so that the Christian is able, even through the tears, to rejoice in hope. 

And if [we are] children, then [we are] heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:17-18).

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

The Christian certainly feels pain when he is afflicted—if he did not, it would not be affliction. When his body is ravaged with disease; when he loses a beloved family member to death; or when he is persecuted, as is the case with many Christians in various parts of the world, he weeps, and he even cries out to God. Nevertheless, he does not weep without hope. God answers his prayers, not always with the deliverance he expects. Often God answers by giving the Christian strength to continue to confess God’s goodness in a hostile and often perplexing world. God gives the persecuted the strength to face death. The atheist weeps without hope, for the best that he can hope for is that his suffering will come to an end at death, perhaps alleviated with modern medicine. However, such a hope is in vain, for when he dies without God his worst (and eternal) sufferings are about to begin! 

That is why I urge you to believe in Jesus Christ. By his death and resurrection he has conquered death. Only in Christ can we make sense of suffering. And only in Christ are sinners, who deserve to suffer forever, delivered and brought into everlasting glory. One day, we must all die. We might die peacefully in our sleep, or of a horrible disease, or even in a violent manner. God has many instruments by which to call us out of this life. But then what? For the believer, death is a passageway into eternal life; but for the unbeliever, death is a trapdoor into hell. Only Jesus makes the difference. I would love to tell you more about Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.

Cordially,

Rev. McGeown

Limerick Reformed Fellowship

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Answering an Atheist: The Problem of "Evil"

The question of suffering has exercised philosophers and theologians for centuries. The issue has always been: “If God is good and almighty, he would not allow his creatures to suffer, and there would be no evil in the world.” However, the statement of the question is problematic, for it presupposes that we can determine what a good and almighty God should do. The answer of the Christian is not to philosophize about what God should do, but to ask what God has revealed about himself in his Word. 

Before I explain further, I should point out that atheism has no answer to this question. According to atheism, the entire universe is the result of a random movement of molecules over countless billions of years. During that incredibly long period of time, life forms supposedly emerged from non-living chemicals (no scientist has demonstrated how that is even possible), and by means of a long process of “natural selection” (commonly called “Survival of the Fittest”), we have arrived at the present state of affairs with man at “the top of the evolutionary tree.” However, man is only “at the top of the tree” because he is the most advanced and developed life form, not because he is the most significant or the most important. In fact, man is, according to the atheistic worldview, of no greater significance than a tree frog, an elephant or a slug. 

To you, your mother or your friend might be more significant than a slug, but you, your mother, and your friend have no transcendent meaning if atheism is true. If atheism is true, the impersonal, indifferent universe does not care that you exist. Your life has no meaning beyond the few years you exist here, and after you are gone you will return to the earth to be “worm food,” until another life form comes along to take your place. Therefore, if you, your family, and even millions of your fellow humans suffer and die, it has no real significance. Unless you are famous (or infamous)—and most of us are not—no one will remember that you existed one hundred years after your death. You might exist in the records of a government bureaucracy from which you will eventually be deleted, or you might exist in the memories of your descendants—if you leave any—but in the grand scheme of things your life is basically meaningless. 

Given such a worldview, why even care about suffering? Why devote your life to alleviating suffering? Why try to make the world a “better place”? As one man put it, “If you decide the purpose of your life is to discover a cure for cancer and I decide the purpose of my life is to discover the tastiest doughnut, the universe really doesn’t care one way or the other. The same goes for the guy who decides the purpose of his life is to get as much pleasure as he can at other people’s expense, even if it causes immense suffering. It’s all ultimately arbitrary” (James N. Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity? [Christian Focus, 2016], p. 100). Atheist Richard Dawkins expressed it in these words, “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” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). 

Therefore, the question of evil and suffering is not really a “question” for atheism. “Evil” (especially moral evil) presupposes an absolute, transcendent, objective moral standard. If it is not “evil” for a cat to kill a mouse (because morality is a meaningless concept for a cat), then it is not “evil” (if atheism is true) for a man to kill another man, especially if killing that man gives him an “evolutionary advantage” over other men. If evolution is true, then why should a man be subject to moral norms, while a cat is free to kill mice without being judged as “evil”? What makes a man’s life any more valuable than the life of a mouse? Why do we punish manslayers as murderers, but we reward mice-killers as “pest control experts”? And if it is not absolutely, objectively wrong to kill one man, why is it absolutely, objectively wrong to kill many men, or indeed a whole race of men?

The answer many atheists give is that society functions better with moral standards or that something becomes morally wrong when society judges it morally wrong. However, why should we care how society functions? If one man is meaningless, why should a society of men have any meaning? Why should human society have any more meaning than an anthill or a beehive? If there is no absolute moral standard according to which all men are judged (i.e., the law of the transcendent Creator God), then cannibalism is acceptable in one society and “honor killings” are acceptable in another society simply because “society” approves of them.

The Christian’s answer to evil and suffering is to begin with God, who is absolutely and perfectly good. Since God is good, the creation he made was good. In fact, when God created the universe, he surveyed his handiwork and “Behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The original “goodness” of the creation included the absence of suffering and death. Death, which atheists view as natural to the evolutionary process and struggle for life, was not part of the good creation that God made. 

Therefore, when an atheist denies God because of the presence of suffering and death in creation, he must first understand that such suffering and death were not part of the original creation. (He must not complain about the creation that God made, but join the Christian in lamenting what the good creation has become). In addition, mankind was good, which means that the first humans (Adam and Eve) were created in holiness and righteousness in God’s image. Adam and Eve were not created sinners: they became sinners. (Incidentally, this means that Christians do not accept the idea of macroevolution, because we do not accept the idea of death before sin. Therefore, the world is not the product of billions of years of evolution, but the creation of a good and wise God).

Adam and Eve were created as God’s friends in a covenant relationship with him, which is why God made them rational, moral creatures (unlike cats, dogs and chimpanzees, which are not rational, moral creatures, and which therefore cannot relate to God). The Heidelberg Catechism—a document written at the time of Reformation—explains it this way, “God created man good, and after his own image, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal happiness to glorify and praise Him” (A. 6). 

Adam and Eve did not remain for long in the state of holiness in which God had created them. They disobeyed God in the famous account of the “forbidden fruit.” That act was not a matter of “just eating a piece of fruit.” God had given them a rich abundance of fruit in the Garden of Eden. They enjoyed fellowship with him. He even walked and talked with them in the cool of the day. When God placed a restriction on their activity (do not eat of this one tree), God was perfectly righteous. As the Creator, God determines good and evil, not man. The devil persuaded Eve to assert her “autonomy” and to decide good and evil for herself, and Adam quickly followed her. That act was deliberate rebellion against God. 

From that one act, all forms of evil, suffering, and death have entered the creation: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin” (Romans 5:12a). God in judgment inflicted death upon the creation because of man’s rebellion. The blame or guilt for sin, suffering and death must not be imputed to God, but to man, the rebellious creature. All human evil, from theft, to dishonesty, to violence and murder, as well as war, genocide and every form of depravity and vice, is a consequence of Adam’s first transgression. 

That does not seem fair to many people, for why should the sin of one man, Adam, affect the whole human race? The answer is found in the identity of Adam. Adam was not merely one individual. God created him to be the head of mankind, not only the biological or organic source of mankind, but also the legal representative of mankind. In other words, Adam represented all of us in the Garden of Eden. We might not like that representation, but it does not change the fact. When Adam fell into sin (and it was not so much a “fall” as a deliberate “leap”), we fell with him, which is why we are all subject to death: “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12b). “For by one man’s disobedience [the] many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19a). And do not think that, had you been there, you would have fared better than Adam. You would not. Your representative in Adam was perfect: he was created in the image of God, he had the warning of God ringing in his ears, and he had every incentive to remain faithful to God, and yet he fell. You would have done the same. 

But there is also mercy in God’s dealings with Adam. The headship of Adam prepared for a better headship. Jesus Christ represents his people. What he accomplished in his perfect obedience, suffering, and death was not for himself: it was for the people whom he represented. “By the obedience of one [Christ] shall [the] many be made righteous” (Romans 5:19b). If it is unfair for God to punish all men for the sin of one representative (Adam), then is it also unfair for God to save all believers for the obedience of one representative (Christ). 

Why, then, is there suffering and death in the world? Why is there evil? First, because God is righteous, and a righteous God punishes sin. He punishes sin in various ways, at different times, and to different degrees in this life, and finally and fully on the day of judgment and in the world to come. Second, evil, suffering, and death serve God’s purposes in history: God’s main purposes are the gathering of his people and development of evil in the world, with the ultimate purpose the glory of his own name. Third, suffering serves the salvation of his people, for God uses suffering to test, purify, and prepare them for the life to come. Fourth, God used the greatest of all evils, the death of his Son, to accomplish salvation, to purchase forgiveness of sins and eternal life for his people. If God ended evil today, he would have to destroy all human beings on the face of the earth. But God is not ready to do that, for important events planned by God must still occur before the end can come. The world has not only an origin, but also a goal, another truth denied by atheism.

God does not give us specific answers to the problem of specific “evils.” Why did this war occur? Why did that person suffer in that particular way? Why did my friend get that disease? Why did that man commit that atrocity or crime? Christianity provides general answers that we can apply to the big questions. Atheism, which views all things including “evil” as meaningless, does not.

God commands you through his Word to cease your rebellion against him, to turn from your sins (whatever they are), and to believe in his Son. If you continue in your sins, you will perish, but the one who believes will receive eternal life. 

The Bible says, "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man [Jesus] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets, Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you (Acts 13:38-41).

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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