Introduction (Full Text)
- One way or another, we are all familiar with suffering and misfortune. Not a day passes without there being news of whole populations suffering from starvation and disease, from systematic rape and wanton massacre. We hear of the hopelessness of poverty and illiteracy and the desperation of the displaced. For some of us, too, tragedy strikes in an immediately personal way — the death of a parent or other loved one. Less dramatically, but often no more easily borne, there are the debilitating effects of unemployment, of broken relationships, of degenerative illness. Maybe it is the very immediacy of personal tragedy which makes us look insistently for someone to blame — the doctors, the police, the government, anyone we can find on whom to release our anger and bitterness and sense of total loss. Perhaps it is the immediacy of personal tragedy which most readily prompts people to blame God; how could God do this to me, how could he allow my innocent child to die, let my spouse go off with someone else leaving me bereft and on my own, not care that I have been unemployed for more than two years? But when we look beyond ourselves and reflect upon the enormous suffering inflicted by earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, AIDS and the viciousness of our fellow humans, it is hard to avoid asking how this can possibly be God's world? Or, if it is, what kind of God must there be who creates a world like this? Perhaps there is no ultimate meaning to our lives. Maybe we must just make the best of what we have, in the realisation that we are no more than a by-product of cosmic forces which are as impersonal as they are blind?
- Few if any of us will never have felt the force of such questions and the inadequacy of whatever answers we might have produced. It is not just that our responses are often emotionally inadequate; it is that we do not seem even to be able to think of an explanation which would satisfy us intellectually either. The ‘explanations' are so often glib, worse than no explanation at all. This book is prompted by two basic concerns: the first is to show that belief in a good God even in the face of suffering and misfortunes can still be characterised by intellectual honesty and integrity; and the second is the need to discover what can, and perhaps more immediately what cannot, be said in answer to the questions with which all of us will at some time or other be beset.
- Despite the way in which nostalgic reference is sometimes made to the Ages of Faith, as though religious belief in some golden age was quite unproblematic, I do not think there ever was an age in which the existence of God was simply unquestioned. Even in the eleventh century St Anselm is moved to confront the person who ‘says in his heart that there is no God', and to try to produce reasoned arguments against that view. In the thirteenth century St Thomas Aquinas is well known for his insistence that faith requires reason. The believer will of course have to accept some truths simply on God's authority; but the believer will not be justified in accepting that authority unless in the first place there are good reasons to believe that there exists a God who does provide such revelation. And of course it is just obvious that reason is an essential tool in trying to grasp the meaning of what God has revealed, and to integrate that knowledge with everything else we might claim to know.
- Since the Enlightenment the charge often brought against religious belief is precisely that there are no really convincing grounds for believing that there is a God at all. The extent of ‘meaningless' suffering and misfortune in our world is alleged to hammer the last nail into the coffin of justifiable religious belief.
- That is why the honesty and integrity of religious belief depends (among other things, of course) upon refuting the alleged incompatibility between the existence of a good God and the tragedies of our sorry world. It is not enough for the believer to claim that since there clearly is a God, there is no real need to take the Enlightenment challenge seriously. Confronted with the near meaninglessness of tragedy, whether personal or cosmic, the religious believer is faced with a most uncomfortable dilemma: either religious belief in an infinitely good God must simply be abandoned as incompatible with any honest attempt to face up to the ills of our world; or else The Problem must simply be ignored, left somewhere at the back of one's mind slowly corroding the picture of God that we have.
- So in the first part of this book, I have one very positive aim. I hope to give good reasons for claiming that even the worst features of our world do not provide good grounds for denying that our world is the loving expression of a good God. Even if we can say nothing more positive, at least to establish that will dispel the most acute versions of the challenge. I shall not be undertaking the much larger task of proving that there is a God and that God is loving and omnipotent. To do that would require another book entirely. But it is essential to defeat the argument which tries to establish that it simply cannot be reasonable to believe in a good God whose providence governs our world.
- The second part of the book tries to prove something quite different. Even if I have successfully shown that a belief in the providence of a good God is not an irrational and untenable belief, that is a very long way from showing in detail how every suffering or misfortune in our world does in the end work out for the best. It seems to me that the history of attempts to provide detailed answers of that kind to questions such as, ‘How can God permit this?' shows that such attempts are apt to do much more harm than good. The proposed justifications for God's actions lack clarity or conviction, or both, and proposing them can be damaging. To substantiate this claim I propose to examine the various kinds of explanation for the sufferings in the world which the biblical writers, whether Jewish or Christian, have tried to offer, and to show what I take to be their weaknesses. In particular, I shall consider what, from a Christian point of view, seemed to be one of the most intractably terrible events — the death of Jesus — and look at the attempts they made to explain what God was doing in allowing his Son to be treated in such a way. I shall argue that these explanations, too, mostly do more harm than good, and that no explanations are better than such bad ones. I shall make no attempt to answer desperately pressing questions such as, ‘Why did God let my child die?' Of course, some kind of answer can usually be given: the child died of meningitis, say, or in a road accident. But it is not at that level that the agonising question is asked. What the bereaved person desperately wants is to find some meaning in such a tragedy which will relate it to the goodness of a provident God. I will not attempt to provide such answers because I simply do not believe that we have such answers at our disposal. I shall discuss the arguments of those biblical writers who caution us against looking for detailed explanations.
- Does this book, then, offer ‘naught for your comfort1'? I shall argue that there are indeed good grounds for being comforted, even though we simply cannot satisfy our need for a fuller explanation of how God's providence governs our world. In the final chapter I shall suggest that instead of looking for intellectual solutions to The Problem, we would do better to consider the ways in which the Bible suggests we should respond to suffering — ways which both make good sense and are intellectually honest, even though they are not ‘solutions' to The Problem in any traditional sense.
- One final note. ‘The Problem of Evil' is too deeply rooted as an expression for me to be able to avoid it altogether. But it is not at all accurate. The difficulty is that ‘evil' is intended as a translation of the Latin malum. But malum in Latin is a very wide term, corresponding more closely to a word like ‘bad' in English: it can be used to refer to a headache or a bad cold, as well as to major natural disasters such as a tsunami or an earthquake, none of which would naturally be called ‘evils' in English; and even in moral matters it can refer to losing one's temper, which is a bad but hardly an evil thing to do, as well as to moral outrages such as the Holocaust or the massacres in Cambodia under Pol Pot, which really are evil. I shall try to use whatever English word is most natural in the various contexts; and sometimes it will be simplest just to speak of ‘The Problem'.
Footnote 1: The phrase is from G.K. Chesterton's ‘Ballad of the White Horse':
I tell you naught for your comfort,
yea, naught for your desire,
save that the sky grows darker yet
and the sea rises higher.
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- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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