I was recently in a discussion with a group (cloud? pride? flock?) of atheists, and very predictably it came down to a discussion of the problem of evil. How can there be a God if there is cancer and death and natural disaster and insanity and murder? It was interesting this time because a friend of mine was there, who has faced terminal cancer twice and has lived to tell the tale. His story is that his cancer, inexplicably, brought him closer to God. The atheists were all squirming around waiting for him to shut up about his tale of faith in the face of evil, and as soon as he did finish, they jumped in to explain that he was not experiencing God’s presence in those times, he was experiencing a personal dissociative identity disorder. Of course! How could he have missed this?
Everyone Believes Something
The fact is, the atheists were making a priori metaphysical assumptions that forced such an interpretation of his experience. Since I already believe in God, I hear his story and say “Of course!” There is a God, and it is astonishing but entirely likely that God would grant comfort and a palpable sense of peace in the face of certain death. He can do anything, so why not this? My metaphysical assumptions allow for this. The atheists’ metaphysical construct does not allow for this, so they are forced to root around for some other explanation. The arrogance of the atheist construct is this: it pretends to have no metaphysical construct, and so assumes an exceptionally accurate interpretation of things belongs to them. They assume that their viewpoint is not based upon a metaphysical construct, but rather upon science. This is of course ridiculous. Atheists do not have a monopoly on science; science is the study of natural empirical phenomena. Just because theists assume there is more to existence than its physicality doesn’t mean they deny the truth and study of the material world.
What does atheism offer the suffering?
However, all of this set me to thinking. What answer does atheism offer to suffering people? Are they willing to say, “your pain and fear and loss are all a part of the adaptive survivalism of the circle of life?” What kind of hope does atheism answer? Is their final answer to a child dying of cancer, “you’re just an insignificant speck on a dust mote on the edge of an insignificant galaxy? Your life wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Your suffering proves there is no God.” That seems to be the argument, although they would certainly recoil from the brutality of saying such things to a suffering and dying person. However, the very strength of the atheist argument – there is evil so there must be no God – is its own achilles heel. It is utterly bankrupt to offer comfort or hope in the face of suffering and evil. It can offer no guarantee of justice or comfort or hope – only the stark reality that our lives are ultimately meaningless and determined by genetics and environment and the cold march of unreasoning unfeeling time.
Christian Legalism is Worse
Christless and graceless Christian-flavored legalism is worse by far than the atheist position. Instead of offering the hope that your life will merely cease, it says that God’s answer to evil is the fear of a terrible judgment by an impartial just and holy God, who will dispassionately and certainly toss you into an eternal fire of judgement if you don’t measure up to His standards. And who measures up? Who faces death with the certainty that your life has measured up to the holy gaze of a just and perfect and all-powerful judge? What a terrible belief!
Don’t be confused here. Anyone who teaches a gospel-like message, and even mentions the cross and belief in Christ, but mixes in a necessity of conformance to some behavioral standard as the condition to acceptance, has tossed the cross of Christ into the garbage can and has offered a belief that is far worse than atheism. How so?
I work with databases. There is a type of data entry which is called “null”. It means, there is absolutely nothing in that field. If you combine another field with a null field, the result is always null. 7 + null = null. “Apples” combined with null results in null. Anything that touches null results in null. Works righteousness is the null of spirituality. If you combine any level of grace with some form of works justification, the grace is thrown out and the works become the true condition of entry.
As the writer of Hebrews says, if one clings to such a faith,
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
The point of the passage is that if we go on sinning by clinging to the law instead of believing in the power of Christ’s blood which cries out for mercy instead of justice, all we have left is a terrifying expectation of vengeance.
The Cross of Christ Declares God’s Answer to Evil
So what is the true Christian answer to the problem of evil? The rest of this post is a fluff piece. This is the good part!
There is nothing worse that has happened in the universe than the death of Jesus Christ. The perfect Son of God, the long-promised Messiah, the greatest teacher and rabbi and obeyer of God that ever lived, was rejected by humanity and killed. Any president or king is a blip on the radar compared to the Messiah. It is a tragedy when an important leader dies, especially if he or she was murdered. But this is the Messiah. This is the guy who could heal all diseases. This is the guy who possessed all knowledge. This is God in the flesh. Humanity crucified Him. Humanity failed and God failed to get through to them. It was the greatest and most tragic evil that ever happened. We dress this up with sentimental icons and paintings and hymns (like one of my least favorite – “the Old Rugged Cross”). But it was not sentimental. It was monstrously and horrendously evil. It was a huge victory for selfish political gain and injustice.
But this is the message of the cross: God took the worst evil and made it into the greatest good. He took the cross of Christ and made it into the salvation of mankind. He made the greatest example of humanity’s collective moral failure into the great great redemption of all believing people. He did this without whitewashing the degree of evil that happened at the cross. He did it without ignoring the suffering of Jesus, without saying that somehow murder and suffering and injustice are OK. He turned the murder and suffering and injustice into resurrection and joy and justification.
And this is the ultimate statement of how God operates. We may not see it yet, but this is our great hope. Our suffering will end up having this same twist. It will end up as a comfort to many. It will end up glorious. It will end up as a redemptive story somehow. Our suffering matters in Christ. It is our dignity and our beautiful gravitas because of our faith. Paul sums this up perfectly:
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18