I am reading the latest John Grisham novel: The Confession. Grisham is a writer who knows how to get the reader turning pages quickly. He usually pulls you along at a healthy pace. But in this particular novel he adds to his usual techniques, the impending execution of an innocent man. So the pages turn even faster as the reader feels there is no time to lose in solving the problem.
It was Samuel Johnson who noted that: “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” But it is not simply the anticipation of disaster that concentrates the mind. Disaster itself focuses our faculties upon the matters of significance.
With wealth comes the acquisition of meaningless and tiresome possessions. With suffering comes evaluation of what really matters in life. It is in the bush fire and the flood that we have to choose the things that really matter to us: family and human life above possessions, and even pets; the irreplaceable photos and memorabilia of life above the gadgets and technology for which we pay so much.
The writer of Ecclesiastes observed: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecc 7:2-4).
This is not for a moment to say that suffering is good or death is desirable. The wisdom we gain comes at the cost of pain and horror. It is the wisdom gained by seeing the evil in suffering and the wickedness of death. It is the wisdom that we learn from the awfulness of this world’s cruelty.
This week SBS aired a show, which recounted the disaster of September 11. They interviewed some people who were involved with the disaster. The sobering lessons they learnt were profound. None would choose to go through the horror of the experience but all learnt to evaluate life, their priorities, their family, friends and themselves differently.
For many atheists, the problem of suffering, especially unjust suffering, is the greatest argument against the existence of God. They usually fail to notice that it is an argument, not against the existence of all gods, or the supernatural, but only against the God of the Bible. For it is the personal God who loves and is good and just, who is being called to account for the suffering of the innocent. Other gods that people worship are not necessarily loving, good or just – some like Moloch could be almost the exact opposite.
Herein lies the problem for the atheist. For without the Biblical God there is no basis for complaint that things are unjust or evil. As Richard Dawkins wrote in 1995, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” A world of ‘pitiless indifference’ cannot view any action as evil or good. In this atheistic framework, the ‘evil’ of the terrorists whose hatred led them to die killing strangers was no different to the ‘good’ of the firemen whose love led them to die trying to save strangers; “there is…no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
In contrast, the Christian can name evil for what it is and be appalled that in God’s world there should be such suffering and pain. The Christian mind can wrestle with the moral order of the universe that is so awry as to see thousands of ‘innocent’ people die in a few moments of dreadful agony. For us, it is not simply a matter of the random chance of a pitiless, impersonal universe and the survival of the fittest. It is not surprising then that we find atheists, not in the troubled and painful life of poverty and difficulty, but in the wealthy societies of pleasure seeking ease. This is just as Jesus predicted: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:17).
Christians may not have all the answers. However, because we have God, we have the questions and some deep and profound answers that enable us to cope with life and face evil without flinching. So C.S. Lewis wrote in his book The Problem of Pain: “God whispers in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. Helen Keller who was both blind and deaf wrote: "I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work, and my God." And Dr. Edward Wilson, who died with Scott on the journey back from the South Pole, wrote: “This I know is God's own truth, that pains and troubles and trials and sorrows and disappointments are either one thing or another. To all who love God they are love tokens from him. To all who do not love God and do not want to love him they are merely a nuisance. Every single pain that we feel is known to God because it is the most loving touch of his hand.”
Even more significantly, Christians can entertain the pain of evil, for we are the people who worship the God we murdered. Our knowledge of God and of ourselves is not found purely in the pleasures of his creation but more particularly in the suffering of our Saviour: the ultimate in innocent and unjust suffering. For in Christ are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).