This is the second part of an essay I wrote in college. For the first part, click here.
While the truth of both the free-will defense and the greater-good theodicy are logically compelling, they are not at all encouraging for the sufferer. What can be said to the afflicted? The greater-good theodicy makes people feel as cogs-in-the-machine of God when suffering. The free-will defense is inept also. The Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel shows how both of these arguments cannot comfort: “Why how could I bless Him?…Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves?…Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?” (Wiesel 67) This cry is against the greater-good theodicy; how could God have allowed the horrors of the Holocaust? What was His purpose? Later, Wiesel argues the conclusion of free-will thinking, irrational, but yet full of pain. “[I]n a world without God, without man. Without love, without mercy…I felt myself stronger than this Almighty.” (68) The responses to both these cries are simple and logical, cold and even emotionless. Disturbingly, the Bible also seems to advocate the following answers: you are not God. You cannot know His purposes.
The Book of Job is the oft-quoted, Christian answer to suffering. In the book, Job complains to God of all his troubles. God answers “Who is this darkening my counsel?/With words lacking knowledge?//Brace yourself like a man/I will interrogate you,/And you will respond to me.” (Job 38:2,3 CEB) What follows is a grand speech of God discussing all of His wondrous works. Eventually, Job relents of his questioning. God restores Job’s wealth that was taken away. However, is this the only comfort the Christian can offer? Is the only response to suffering that God has created the world and we have not, and as such we should cease complaining? Ought we to simply “brace ourselves” and carry on, unfeeling? This seems an odd answer from a God who later in the Book of Isaiah orders the prophet to “comfort [His] people” (Is. 40:1 CEB) or a God who “heard the cry of injustice because of their slave masters.” (Ex. 3:7 CEB) As can be seen from Wiesel, the Jobian response is hardly comforting to those in the midst of affliction. How can a Christian answer evil and suffering?
Perhaps the answer lies in not answering. Following the line of logic that the church fathers left us, together with Lewis’ Free-Will defense, it would seem the most reasonable for the Dark Power (as Lewis is fond of calling evil) to repent of its wickedness. If evil results in non-being that will eventually destroy itself and God is the totality of being, than it stands to reason that it is not better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. It is infinitely better to repent than face eternal judgement. However, clearly from the Bible, that is not the final state of the Dark Powers. Evil is fundamentally, at its core, irrationality brought into being, if it can even be called that. Suffering is similar. It is the consequence of the first sin of man, a meaningless irrationality of the powers of nature. Not only do the ancient fathers have discussions of the non-being against God, but modern scholars are beginning to reaffirm this state of “being and non-being” simultaneously. Theologian Joshua McNall argues that Satan is less than a person because of his evil. “Paul’s logic of the mind progressively depraved and darkened…may cause one to reject the “well-reasoned” nature of the devil’s campaign against the creator.” (Mcnall 226). Theologian Michael Green takes the non-being evil a step farther, stating “[the devil] counterfeits personality.” (qtd. McNall 227). If evil is so irrational as to not even be worthy of a true personality, is there even an explanation for it? Can there even be an answer to the question “why did this evil act happen?”
The Bible does respond to these questions with hope. Paul, writing to the Roman church, which knew persecution, states that “God works all things together for good for the ones who love God” (Rom. 8:28 CEB). Throughout the second half of Chapter 8, Paul extolls the virtues of suffering. “The present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18 CEB) But is looking forward to the future simply Pollyannaism? Is it not just another form of ordering the afflicted the “brace themselves like a man”? It does not address the current suffering or offer advice . The reader is left with hope for the future, but is that enough comforting? It is compelling though, that even nature herself is “groaning” (Rom 8:19 CEB) and suffering. Perhaps this is the key: fellowship in suffering.
The verse from Isaiah quoted above is from a section of the prophet that foretells of the coming of John the Baptist, who in turn, foretold the coming of Jesus. How could that be quite comforting? Israel was not freed from her bondage, she still was ruled over by Rome. Jesus died. Although He did rise again, how could He comfort in struggle if He was God? Isaiah has many verses about the coming Messiah, but one is key to this discussion: Isaiah 7:14. God declares that “the [Virgin] is pregnant and about to give birth to a Son, and she will name Him Immanuel.” (CEB) This word “Immanuel” means, God with us. God has come to humanity and that radically alters how Christians discuss suffering. God’s solution to the suffering of man was not to send them logical arguments and hope that they listen. It was not simply to send Himself to die on a cross without living amongst the people. Because Jesus was both God and man, He experienced all that man experiences. A death on a cross is a horrific death. It is not known exactly how death occurs on a cross, and “different individuals died from different physiological causes” (Maslen and Mitchell), but it is an excruciating painful experience. However, Jesus endured much more than a just painful death while on earth. Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions. It is often said that John 11: 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. This verse is a powerful salve to comfort the afflicted. Jesus, after arriving late to heal His friend Lazarus, is criticized by Lazarus’ sister. He ordered her to bring Him to Lazarus’ grave and then “Jesus began to cry.” (John 11:35 CEB). This is the power of God With Us, the heroism of the Gospel. Jesus, who was going to heal Lazarus, and knew He could, nevertheless wept over Him. This is Jesus’ response to suffering. He cries. He does not reprimand Mary for insulting Him; He does not explain to Martha how more good than bad will come out of Lazarus’ death. Jesus sobbed over the suffering in the world. This was His response to the sufferers: compassion and fellowship. This is how Christianity’s hope comforts Paul, God endured suffering alongside man and will come again.
Job’s friends exemplify this attitude of Christ, at least for the beginning of the story. They have received their fair share of criticism for what they said to Job, but for the first part of their introduction, they sit in the ash with their friend Job. “When they looked up from a distance and did not recognize him, they wept loudly. Each tore his garment and scattered dust above his head toward the sky. They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven night, not speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.” (Job 2:12,13 CEB) Perhaps this is the overlooked lesson in the Book of Job. When friends are hurting, the most comforting think is to be present. This is the thought of missiologist Glen Penner. “When people are suffering often the last thing they need is words of advice, even from friends or loved ones. They need our presence.” (Penner 43) Even after Job endures the speech of God, the book continues to hint this theme as the proper reaction to suffering. “All [Job’s] brothers and sisters, and acquaintances came to him and ate food with him. They comforted and consoled him concerning all the disaster that the LORD brought on him.” (Job 42:11 CEB) This is part of the ministry of Christians, to incarnate the Incarnation, to be with people, perhaps even weeping with them. This is the solution that Bishop N. T. Wright offers the world. “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” (Wright) This is also the advice of pastor John Piper. “Occasionally, weep deeply over the life that you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Feel the pain. Then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life that He’s given you.” (Piper) Perhaps this is the best way to defend the faith, not by providing the right answers to the wrong questions, but by not answering the irrationality of suffering. This weeping with the afflicted is part of the ministry of Christ, fulfilling throughout history the prophecy. The afflicted will be comforted and not by the answers to their questions, but by the tears of the comforters that Christ sanctifies as His own.
Maslen, Matthew W, and Piers D Mitchell. “Medical theories on the cause of death in
crucifixion.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 99,4 (2006): 185-8.
McNall, Joshua. The Mosaic of Atonement. Zondervan Academic, Grand Rapids. 2019.
Penner, Glenn M. In the Shadow of the Cross. Living Sacrifice Books, Bartlesville. 2004.
Piper, John. “Embrace the Life God Has Given You.” Desiring God. March 10, 2017.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Marion Wiesel. Hull and Wang, New York. 2006.
Wright, Fr. N. T. “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” Time Magazine. March 29, 2020. time.com/5808495/coronavirus- christianity/.