The Jubilee Centre Blog

The Puzzle of Suffering: part II

Guy Brandon   Posted: 5 November 2012

Keywords: Worldviews & Culture,

This is the second in a two-part series on suffering, unpacking a relational approach to apologetics - or, as we argue, to 'categorics'. You can read the first part here. If you have enjoyed this then please like/share it on Facebook and leave a comment.

Part II: The three problems of suffering

There are three reasons why the problem of evil prevents people from believing. The first, most obvious but arguably least significant is the logical question it presents: 'How can the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God be reconciled with the existence of evil in the world that he created?' The logical question is important, but it is the least of the three aspects of this issue - or, at least, they have been dealt with in so much depth elsewhere that there is no need to cover them again here. Although there are plenty of rational, intelligible and trustworthy answers to this side of the question of suffering, these rarely satisfy the questioner.

The second and third reasons are caused as a direct result of the existence of evil in the first place. As described in the introduction and in Tim Chester and Steve Timmis' Total Church, unbelief frequently comes from a deeply irrational place. The reasons to which we attribute it are often only added on afterwards as a kind of post hoc justification. This is the way the human mind tends to work: we often fit evidence to what we already believe - known as 'confirmation bias'. (Pascal's Wager was intended to highlight this irrationality, rather than to present the listener with an insurance policy for the afterlife.) In other words, it is not lack of evidence that drives us away from the Christian faith; it is our sin that stops us from wanting to engage with Christianity. The second question is therefore something like, 'Why should I believe this if it means I have to change the way I live?' Viewed within this broader context, the questioning of suffering - or any other issue of apologetics - can be a reason not to believe what we have already decided we don't want to believe.

Most importantly, from the perspective of this article, the other side of this is the way that the suffering that exists in the world impacts us personally. So, again, although the question is asked on an intellectual level, the answers are really needed on an emotional, experiential one. Suffering is rarely something we can consider as a detached, rational matter; it is overwhelmingly a personal one. The question of why God allows suffering is therefore not primarily an intellectual one - it takes place at a far more visceral level. The third question is barely a question at all. It is a plea from the heart: 'Take the pain away.'

Treating pain

A diagnosis of the causes of our pain doesn't require solely an intellectual answer, it requires effective treatment. When you go to a doctor there are two things you want: an explanation of what is wrong and an effective remedy - and the remedy is generally the more important part. It doesn't matter if the doctor can give a reason for your suffering, no matter how brilliant the diagnosis - flu, appendicitis, Takayasu's arteritis (House, season 3 episode 15) - if it can't be fixed. You don't just want to know why you're in pain; you want the pain to stop. When we answer the problem of suffering on an intellectual level alone we take it out of its real context, dehumanising it - and the questioner - and reducing them to a puzzle that, like House, we can solve by thinking hard enough.

Although the rational answer can therefore sometimes serve a purpose and go a certain way towards addressing doubts, in other cases it can actually be worse than useless. Rational answers make sense, but often only superficially. They frequently do not address the real question. They do not convince hearts that have already decided it is not in their interests to believe in God because they see their existing way of life as more attractive. Overcoming this resistance involves demonstrating the goodness of the Christian way of life, showing people something they might want to believe in.

Neither do intellectual answers heal the pain that people feel as a result of the sin that exists in the world. Given a good doctor who explains matters in the right terms, most adults will be able to understand their diagnosis. However, we can never hope to know fully the mind of God, however hard we try to interpret scripture. Perhaps a less-flawed analogy is what happens when we take a sick pet to the vet's, or a child for an injection. We can try to explain the suffering in intellectual terms. But a toddler doesn't have the capacity or desire to understand about antibodies, the immune system, the epidemiology of measles. They have no concept that it is better to suffer very briefly in the short term to avoid greater long-term pain. (This is not to imply that all human suffering is God's way of bringing greater good in the world - it's only a less-flawed analogy, not a perfect one.) A rational answer is no comfort to them at all.

In the worst cases, like House, intellectualising a problem is a way of avoiding engaging with people on a deeper level and getting our hands dirty in the messy realities of the real world: 'to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners... to comfort all who mourn' (Isa. 61:1-2, cf. Luke 4:14-21).

Answering the right question

People rarely ask about suffering as a detached, academic issue - at least, not outside of academia. Unfortunately, though, that's often the language in which we answer their questions. Because they ask due to their personal experience of suffering, an intellectual answer will never be enough to satisfy them. The victim of a car accident doesn't need to know how bad weather combined with a poorly-surfaced road and faulty brakes to result in a fractured femur and ruptured spleen. There may be a place for intellectual explanations - theodicy, in our context - at some point. But at the time they just need an ambulance. Even later on, intellectual theodicy doesn't achieve as much as we'd like to think. It was the experience of God that forced Job to put aside his questions: giving God his rightful place was not the result of solving his questions about suffering, it pre-empted them.

God is...?

We can be very attached to our theodicies, despite the fact that they manifestly don't work in the field. Without being anti-intellectual, it's worth asking: Does God value knowledge or love more highly? Which is more in his nature: 'God is rationality' or 'God is love'?

1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 reads, 'We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.' Paul was almost certainly addressing the heresy of Gnosticism here. 'Knowledge' - gnosis in Greek - was thought to be a kind of sacred key, the Gnostics' way of transcending the corrupt earthly world and bridging the gap between the human and the divine. Times haven't changed all that much.

Relational apologetics...

In their book Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis note that 'rational' apologetics don't work because people have already decided they don't want to believe. Therefore no amount of logical persuasion will change their minds. 'This does not mean there is no place for rational apologetics. But it means they must be less ambitious. Their role is not to persuade unbelievers. The role of rational apologetics is to demonstrate that unbelief is a problem of the heart rather than a problem of the head. People may claim that the obstacle to faith is the problem of suffering or the implausibility of miracles or the existence of other religions. The role of rational apologetics is to show that these are not the real causes of unbelief. It is to strip away the excuses and expose rebellious hearts.' (p. 167)

Instead they argue, with Blaise Pascal, that we need to make people want to believe our message before we can persuade them that it's true. They quote Francis Schaeffer: 'Christian community is the ultimate apologetic.'

This is true, but the other aspect of this is not just the 'hearts that won't believe', but the ones that can't - where suffering isn't just a convenient cover story but a genuine barrier. Perhaps these are just different sides of the same coin; one says that the effects of sin prevent us from believing, the other that its attractions do. In either case, community is a more effective answer than intellectual discussion.

...vs. relational categorics

Finally, 'apologetics' as a whole tend to be reactive and self-protective. In a Greek court, the apologia was an argument by the defence. Christians use this to describe an intellectual defence or 'apology'. The categoria was the speech by the prosecution. We are suggesting that Christians need to be more pro-active in speaking out against a flawed culture, emphasising the need for a shift in categories of thinking. Instead of the preoccupation with the self (individualism) and consumerism, we need a relational framework. Instead of apologetics, we need 'categorics' - a critique of individualism and consumerism, and Christianity's answers to the problems our society faces that these ideologies cannot offer.

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