Some of you might have noticed the question I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday: how do you reconcile the existence of a good God with suffering? Some of you even responded.
I asked this question out of sheer frustration with my multiple failed attempts at expressing my thoughts in response to David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? The assignment was to articulate whether or not I thought that Hart provided a satisfactory answer to the question of how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil and suffering.
Much of the first half of the book is spent undermining the various theodocies articulated by both Christians and atheists shortly after the tsunami which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2004. I won’t go into more detail than simply saying that Hart dismisses them (with arguments, mind you). According to Hart, the only real challenge to the Christian understanding of God is provided by the character Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.
He willingly grants, he says, that all wounds will at the last be healed, all scars will disappear, all discord will vanish like a mirage…and that such will be the splendor of the finale of all things, when that universal harmony is established, that every heart will be satisfied, all anger soothed, the debt for every crime discharged, and everyone made capable of forgiving every offense and even of finding justification for everything that has ever happened to mankind; and still rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it…[because] the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures are greater than his conscience can bear” (38-9)
And then Ivan presents his interlocutor (Alyosha) with “a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children — true stories, as it happens, that Dostoyevski had collected from the press and from other sources” (39). Ivan’s examples are truly heartbreaking and I could not–indeed still cannot–remove them from my mind as I tried to write my response.
He tells of Turks in Bulgaria tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs with daggers, or flinging infants into the air to catch them on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, or playing with babies held in their mothers’ arms — making them laugh, enticing them with the bright metal barrels of pistols — only then to fire the pistols into the babies’ faces. He tells the story of two parents regularly savagely flogging their seven-year-old daughter, only to be acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. He tells the story of a…couple who tortured their five-year-old daughter with constant beatings, and who — to punish her, allegedly, for fouling her bed — filled her mouth with excrement and locker her on freezing nights in an outhouse. (39)
And then, perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all:
…he invites Alyosha to imagine that child, in the bitter chill and darkness and stench of that place, striking her breast with her tiny fist, weeping her supplications to “gentle Jesus,” begging God to release her from her misery, and then to say whether anything…could possibly be worth the brutal absurdity of that little girl’s torments (39-40).
This is the only real challenge to Christian thinking because it is a complaint that is deeply rooted in Christian thought (Dostoyevski was a man of intense faith). Hart’s final answer seems to be no answer–at least, no rational answer. I’m fine with that. That’s my response, too.
But before he gets there he argues for the distinction between what God wills and what God permits and how that relates to created human freedom. God is not culpable, ultimately, in Hart’s view, and he then points us to God’s final victory–the thing Ivan believes in but ultimately rejects.
I don’t believe God is culpable either, and I, too, believe in the victory of God.
And yet, and yet, and yet…there is still that girl beating her tiny fists against her breast. How can any response be made in the face of that image? How can we do anything but be silent in the face of such suffering, as Hart, ironically, suggests would have been the most appropriate response to the 2004 tsunami? My beef with Hart’s response–so far as it is one–is that no matter how you cut it, there is still that suffering little girl.
I struggled intensely with articulating my thoughts in this paper, and I think now it was because the theological and philosophical and ontological tension inherent in the question of evil had made its way into not only my head but also my heart. While his belief that death and suffering and evil have no meaning or function in God’s economy (i.e. they are an anomaly), I was not ultimately not satisfied with Hart’s attempt at theodicy (reconciling a loving God with the existence of evil) because ever and again the image of that little girl crying and pounding her fists come to mind. And yet I still share the same belief and hope as Hart: that God will one day make all things new. But how to I reconcile that?
If there’s one thing I don’t have a solid grasp on in terms of faith, it’s the Christian notion of the victory of God now, rather than just at some point in the future. When Christ said on the cross, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about his life, but about the victory of God. And yet evil appears to carry on apace. Again, how do we reconcile the two? I asked this question in class today and my prof quoted Karl Barth (I think–it may have been Martin Luther), who said, “The old Adam is drowned, but the bastard keeps swimming” (that was what he said to me in private–in class he said, “the bugger”, which, depending on where you come from, is no less vulgar). I approached him after class and asked if Barth’s statement (“the one about the swimming bugger”) wasn’t a contradiction–if he’s drowned, the bastard most certainly shouldn’t be swimming. In response, my prof made another comparison: a chicken with its head cut off will still run around for a couple of minutes–it’s dead, but in a way it doesn’t realize it yet (or it’s in denial), so it tries to keep on with what ever it has been doing.
This made sense to me, but still isn’t satisfying. I guess I just want all suffering to stop–what sane person doesn’t?–and the fact that it hasn’t yet drives me nuts. I don’t like that tension. But I realized that I’m a typical modern(ist?) evangelical, and my prof concurred, who likes to have everything neatly packaged and arranged and explained and spelled out. We want answers and explanations. We want an apology (in the sense of apologetics). There is not much place for mystery in the evangelical mind.
I was going to link to a .pdf of my paper, but it occurred to me that it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book and there’s no need to trouble people with out-of-context ideas. I can’t say I haven’t marvelled at not falling into total despair, perhaps even rejecting God the way Ivan does. But I don’t think this is the obvious or natural answer to the question. Somehow–by the grace of God, I guess–I still believe that all shall be well, while at the same time recognizing that suffering is real and that there is no appropriate response to suffering in the moment of suffering other than silence or weeping.
I guess I’ll have to learn to live with that tension for now.