A few months back, I was shattered in my spirit after hearing of the sad demise of my dear colleague’s 22 year old daughter in a horrible road accident. After two decades of being a single parent and bringing her up through life’s many difficulties, this was not supposed to happen. When she saw me in the funeral, she screamed out in a loud voice: Ma’am, please pray……. I need my daughter back. As I stood there motionless seeing the mangled remains of the once beautiful girl, I felt my faith melt away slowly like mist,so much so that I could not even whisper. Someone there subtly commented, I am sure, there is no God.
This incident made me to ponder over the problem of evil and suffering. My mind ran through this problem that has plagued mankind, almost since the beginning of time. Charles Darwin who once did his three years of theological studies at Christ’s college, Cambridge, became an avowed atheist when he lost his dearly loved daughter at the age of 10 to Bilious fever and later went on to write the Evolution of Species. When one encounters such gratuitous evil, an evil that does not serve a greater good or purpose, questions arise as easy as breath in those moments of hell on earth: where is God? why didn’t He stop this? There seems to be no cosmic laws of any kind that govern such evil which is beyond the human ken. The irony here is that on a daily basis, when we see countless instances of suffering like homeless people, natural disasters, painful diseases, torture of humans, even non human primates and animals that die a horrible and painful death, we all function with a view that such suffering should be eliminated, reduced, or altered in order to make the world a better place. Many proponents of atheism say because of the existence of gratuitous evil, an infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good God does not exist. A God who permits such evil is not a digestible idea, and so, He cannot exist. This is referred to as the evidential problem of evil.
However, this argument is not compelling. The fatal flaw of this argument is that, it depends on the precondition that, with our limited epistemic position, we can understand the purposes of God and that evil is gratuitous. However, as the epistemic position of human beings with respect to the existence of gratuitous evil is fairly precarious, we cannot discern whether the evil is gratuitous or not; we can only infer the probability or stipulate that such evil do exist. And using this speculation, inferring that God does not exist, leads to a logical fallacy called begging the question. Begging the question is a circular reasoning in which a statement or claim made, is assumed to be true without any evidence, other than the statement or claim itself.
Moreover, when we contemplate the existence of God, there are many compelling evidences for His existence based on first cause, based on the design, and based on morality and meaning, that eclipses this argument. So I believe though the argument based on the evidential problem of evil is valid, it is not sound as the premises are not true. How can we know that a thing is purposeless, if we lack the ability to process the full spectrum of the workings of the universe?And the more we try to conclude from incomplete information, the more likely we are to make misdiagnosis and jump to wrong conclusions. However, Alvin Plantinga differentiates between the existential problem of evil, where a person may become terribly angry or bitter towards God because of suffering, which needs a pastoral care and not enlightenment and the epistemic problem of evil, in which the existence of apparently pointless evil renders belief in God false or improbable. Without attempting to minimize the significance of the alleged gratuitous evils, I would like to move on to the existential problem of evil.
When suffering of such magnitude strikes, it does not leave anyone the same. When dreams are lost and expectations are dashed, the pain of it is personal and no one can share that pain fully. The struggle of being powerless in the face of overwhelming evil leads to mistrust and the feeling of betrayal towards God. The mind whispers, I don’t think you are big enough to protect me….why would you allow this if You are love personified? Why didn’t you step in and do something? Are you even there? The prophet Jeremiah depicts this powerfully when he cries out, God, you deceived me and I was deceived (Jer. 20:7). Though this question of God’s goodness in the face of evil is a thistle to the soul, irrespective of the answer, it is not to be avoided. There are three possible strategies to deal with this question.
The first strategy to avoid/manage pain is to turn away from God by taking charge of the situation, acting on self devised value systems and by making decisions that are independent of God (Isaiah 50:11). Any effort made to remain intact and safe, though it creates an illusion of safety, leads to subtle autonomy and inevitably to torment. To the degree that one labors to keep themselves intact, they become less loving and more rebellious. More than the pain itself, the distortion of people’s perceptions of God and their broken relationship with Him, is of far greater consequence. A complex web of rage and contempt are often hidden below an assertive confident exterior that does not appear wounded or scathed.
However, the deep wounds and scars, because of the profound powerlessness experienced during suffering, don’t heal with time; time only blunts and numbs the memory. Wounds that stay unresolved and unprocessed remain deep in the spirit, leading to despair, which leads to the beginning of total abandonment of hope. With no ultimate reality and absolute systems to turn to, there arises a suspicion and a despondent view of the world that has cavalierly ignored their pain. This gives rise to paranoia and the human soul is left charred, empty, lonely and abandoned, leading to a loss of a sense of self. This amounts to living in a haze of distortion that lacks any sense of objectivity.
The goal of the second strategy is to kill the soul by living in denial, separating the mind from the agony in the heart. Betrayal by an intimate deeply trusted companion is almost too much for the soul to endure and when this betrayal is felt towards God who is the source of all trust, it is better to deny the past and to ignore the memories than to effectively cope with the wound. The past becomes insignificant and one need not ponder over the central question: why did not God intervene? However, this soul numbing choice by denial of the past is tantamount to forgetting the journey that God has called us to live. It leads to the deadness of soul by turning a person into complacent spiritualized automaton. This ambivalence leads to depression as all the energy goes into silencing the memory recall. In an effort to mask this struggle, the mood swings between feeling helpless and feeling abandoned, while experiencing overwhelming rage. The outwardly pleasant layer functions to hide the inner chambers of the wounded heart,robbing the joy of loving and being loved by others. God has made us to be as He is – alive, passionate and loving and not dead.
The best strategy of dealing with pain involves the risk of bringing the wounded, bloodied and stained heart to God, despite the rage and emptiness. Many saints who have passed through this terrain have also wrestled with God over the deepest questions of life and God honors this faith. God cannot do anything with that which has not been left at His feet. Jacob’s wrestling with God resulted in the wounding of his thigh but resulted in the freedom of his heart. The wound of Jacob was his victory, as it exposed the weakness of his heel-grabbing approach to life and transformed him into the father of the nation of Israel.
The journey through the valley of the shadow of death helps in transitioning from the abstract knowledge of God to a personal encounter with Him. This becomes possible when we walk through this terrain with the slowly solidifying knowledge that God is loving and trustworthy and that He can be trusted, without our self-effort or denial of the past. In the surrendering of our will and life entirely to Him, we discover the infinite nature of His love, unsearchable depths of His wisdom and incomparable mercy and grace of Our God. Our well-being depends on trusting that He is for us and He has the power to redeemand use all things for His purposes, even suffering and pain. Many times, God leads His children to abundance via the paths of brokenness and pain. The Lord has promised that He will not put out the smoking flax or break the broken reed (Is 42:3).This poem depicts the journey of the wounded heart, when God is in the midst of gratuitous evil and pain.
Long time ago, I was beating on His Chest,
Not knowing that I was doing so within the circle of His Arms.
Until one day I noticed the wound upon His Breast
Intrigued I moved closer and still closer
And was drawn by a powerful loving force that sucked me
Through the wound and made me reach for His Heart
There in the recesses, I heard the faint sound of His Heart beat
My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?
Now, I know He was forsaken, so that I will be remembered.
He was broken so that I will not be broken
He was pierced so that no pain will pierce me
He was shamed so that I will not be ashamed
He was alone so that I would be loved
Finally, I stopped the beating and turned to rest on Him
Breath in and breath out…….
The wonder of the gospel is that, though the Cross of Christ never negates or dismissesour pain, it becomes manageable in His brokenness and this is the comfort to a suffering person. The Cross does not directly deal with the question: why me? But it gives the answer to a different question: why am I loved so much? His cry,“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”, soothes us. John Stott says in ‘The Cross of Christ’, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.” The Cross helps us place our trust in the Person to whom it ultimately belongs and propels us towards pouring ourselves out for the sake of others.