Suffering Loss : A Subset of the Problem of Evil

This blog post is authored by first Melissa Neill and Taylor Neill following.

Loss by Melissa Neill

I have been weary. 

The emotional toll of grief creates a physical exhaustion to accompany it.

I find myself mentioning casually in every conversation that allows for it, “My father just died.” Why? Because I want their pity? Maybe, but I don’t feel that I do. I think it is that I am searching for relatability. For people to remind me that it will be ok—eventually. I am trying to force acknowledgement. I might as well be screaming, “Y’all, he’s gone! This amazing person is gone, and even if you didn’t know him, can’t you just feel that hole left in the world!?” 

And can you? Can you feel that hole left in the world!?

No. Of course not. You can observe my pain, but you can’t feel my pain. And that’s ok.

So often when we discuss God and his goodness, it is countered with, “Why would a good God allow suffering?”

There are layers to this question. There is the suffering of loss, the suffering of the consequences of our action, and the suffering from the consequences of other people’s actions. There is physical suffering from a lack of resources, suffering from illness and injury, suffering from our own emotional turmoil, and suffering from all that we can not control. 

This question deserves time and thoughtfulness. It deserves an entire book, carefully read and studied (cough.. The bible perhaps..) on the subject. 

But for this, I will discuss the suffering of loss. Specifically, the loss of a loved one’s life. 

My father was an easy man to love. He was an artist and a poet. A dreamer. He never spoke ill of anyone. He had a plethora of corny jokes and philosophical musings. He loved his wife, children, grandchildren, his family and friends—and he loved us all well. He had a sweet southern accent, and certain words he kind of sang. He would whistle with the birds, drinking his coffee. He loved God, and he studied His word, and spent a great deal of time with Him.

I miss my father because he is worth missing. When the wrap-around of “whys” comes full circle, it will always come back to God’s goodness that I was ever gifted my father to begin with. 

It’s easy for me to look at the loss of my father and see how blessed I was from God to have had him. To have known him. To be a part of his legacy. In this incident, I can look at my loss and see that God’s seasonal gifts are still gifts when the season is over. It is only without the goodness that was taken that loss was created, and that I am able to feel the weight of sadness that comes from a missed blessing. But I was blessed nonetheless, and my life was bettered because of that blessing. 

And I will admit, beyond the gratitude that accompanies this great grief (the gratitude of being blessed to have had something worth missing); there is another component to what comforts me. 

In each process of my Father’s death, I asked him, “Are you afraid?” and he always, with full sincerity, said, “Not at all. I know my God well, and I know what is to come.” I would ask him if he was at peace, and even when his mind was gone, to that he could still answer, “Yes.” 

I have no doubt that my Father is with his eternal Father. He is not suffering, or distraught, or confused. Tom Windham has not ceased to exist because the neurons of his brain are no longer firing. I have this eternal hope. I have trust that we are made for more than a temporary existence and a brief breath in space. I have faith in this belief because, in having communion with my God, he has revealed himself to me and been faithful to me over and over again. In our relationship, a foundation of trust in all of his words has formed. I urge you, if you have not yet gotten to know our God, that you do so. That you take a leap of faith and begin this relationship right now. That you start your journey, juvenile as it begins, so that you may mature in your faith and have the complete sense of peace that comes from experience with knowledge and understanding.

My dad, and so many other loved ones whose time here has passed, are in the glory of our maker, and only those who are still Earthside are left to feel this absence. 

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14


The Problem of Evil by Taylor Neill

In the minds of many, the problem of evil is positive evidence against the existence of a “good” God and, therefore, against a moral standard that is rooted in his nature. This argument can be expressed in two forms: The logical problem and the emotional problem. Both are
important and need to be dealt with seriously.

The logical problem explores the coherence of the idea that God can be both all-loving and all-powerful and yet allow evil and suffering to occur. It’s a deep question. However, as I will attempt to show, this form of this argument, far from disproving the God of Christianity, turns out to be devastating for atheism!

The emotional problem, nevertheless, cannot be so easily dismissed. To say that the problem of evil gets its appeal from its emotional impact is not intended to be dismissive or insulting to those who level it at Christians. I was once among their number! On the contrary, it is an issue that all thinking Christians will struggle with, even if they never consider it to be a successful argument against God’s existence. No other argument has led more people to walk away from faith in God and, because the problem is often intensely and personally realized, mere argumentation is insufficient for the apologist (is it ever?).

I believe that a robust logical, theological, and pastoral response is needed. We encounter this argument in a variety of contexts, but the thrust of it is always the same; if God is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good, why is there so much evil in the world? If God were all powerful, the argument goes, he could stop all suffering. And if he were all-loving, then he would stop all suffering.  Since he clearly does not stop all suffering, the Christian has a problem.  God, it appears, is either incapable of stopping all suffering and, therefore, is not all-powerful, or he is capable of stopping all suffering but chooses not to and, therefore, is not all-loving. 

The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, recognized this problem more than
200 years before the birth of Christ:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
As referenced above, the power of this argument is brought into focus when you consider specific cases of horrendous suffering which do not appear to be the result of sin.  Consider those who asks “Why would God allow my loved-one to suffer terribly and then die from cancer?”. Why indeed?  It is so hard for those of us seperated from such devastation to even countenance the idea. Compounding the issue, in recent years we have observed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being wiped out by disease and natural disasters. The problem appears to be intractable.

But if we remove the emotionally charged context, is the Epicurean objection sound? Are God and suffering mutually incompatible? Is it logically possible that an all-loving, all-good God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing suffering? In other words, is there a logical
problem of evil?

Actually, no. In fact, most contemporary philosophers have abandoned this argument for several reasons. I want to focus here on two.
First, contra to Epicurus, there is simply no inherent contradiction between the existence of a good God and evil. This is because the premise “if God is able, but not willing to stop suffering he is malevolent” is false.

We can demonstrate the point by thinking of an example where temporary suffering obviously produced something good. We can all think of such an example. If you are a parent, consider your children. Have you ever allowed them to suffer in the short term to achieve a
greater good in their lives? To a child, their first vaccinations seem cruel and purposeless. This is because their perspective is limited. Does it follow then, that the parents do not exist or are not good? No. Moreover, you may say that the parents had a good reason to allow this suffering to occur. The same is true if you have allowed your children to fail in order that they would grow in wisdom and maturity. Now, this is not intended as a comprehensive answer and it is certainly not intended to trivialize the issue. It is intended, however, to show that there is no inherent contradiction between suffering and the existence of an all-loving God. And if we can see this by observing the disparate perspectives of parent-child relationships, is raises the question “how
much greater is this gap when comparing my perspective to God’s?”

There is much more that could be said here but let me admit once again that this is not a satisfactory answer for all instances of suffering.  In my opinion, a fully satisfying answer to children dying of cancer, for example, is not forthcoming (at least not by arguments alone). But
that does not mean that there is a logical contradiction. We simply do not know why God would allow each instance of evil that we observe and that is quite different than saying that it is logically impossible for such reasons to exist.” Thus, it does not follow that God is malevolent if
he chooses to allow suffering.

As philosopher William Lane Craig points out, to establish God’s incompatibility with suffering, “the atheist would have to show that it is logically impossible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting said evil and suffering”. And, Craig continues, “finite persons
are simply in no position to claim that kind of knowledge.”

Secondly, very simply, the skeptic must accept the existence of evil in order to raise the objection. But as my readers will know, “good” and “evil”, taken as objective features of reality, only exist if God exists. And, though we may try to deny it, we all know that some things are
truly good and some things are truly evil. Therefore, the reality of evil is evidence for God’s existence! Thus, a study of the logical problem of evil yields powerful arguments in favor of God’s existence and against atheism.

The logical problem of evil is not successful.

But if Christianity can offer no greater consolation than this, then perhaps Christianity cannot solve this problem any more than atheism. Let us turn then to the emotional problem of evil, which is, in my judgement, the more difficult of the two problems. As such, I think it is appropriate to reiterate that a fully satisfying argument is not, and perhaps cannot be, forthcoming (on this side of Heaven). But if Christianity is true, perhaps some profound and meaningful answers are possible.

With humility and respect to those in pain, I want to suggest that God has not remained distant from your suffering.  If it is true that God chose to enter the world in the person of Jesus Christ to endure unimaginable torture and an excruciating death, then this reveals a God who is not unfamiliar with or indifferent to your pain. This, as John Lennox says “is a window into who God is”. And if Christ is raised, there is reason to hope that the vector of pain, suffering, and death may finally be transcended. The question we should ask then is this, “is Jesus really risen?”

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins.
1 Corinthians 15:17

This is how the Apostle Paul describes the importance of this question. And, indeed, if Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead, it would be lethal to Christianity. It would mean that Jesus had been a false teacher who ultimately failed to validate the many claims he made about himself. But if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then it is not just the central event of church history; it is the central event of human history. If this event is historical, it means that we can be reasonably sure that Jesus of Nazareth is who he said he was. And, therefore, we can
be confident about what awaits us after death.

One lifetime is not enough to explore the full meaning and implications of this, but for our purposes here, let it suffice to say that if Jesus is risen, there is hope. Hope that death is not the end and that all will be put right. It would mean that, no matter how long the list of our misdeeds, we can be forgiven and redeemed. It would mean that, no matter how we suffer in this life, we can live with joy and confidence in the glory to come. The resurrection of Jesus, if true, affects every person who has or ever will live.

Eternity in Heaven eclipses any temporal suffering. 

This, again, does not take away the sting of a New Town massacre and the like. In such times the world simply does seem cruel and unjust. But

I am proposing that an eternity in Heaven cannot only provide meaning and hope, it can fully compensate for even the worst temporary suffering.

Finally, I want to suggest that all belief systems face the emotional problem of evil; and atheism offers no hope. It could be the case that atheism is true, and that evil does not really exist ontologically, and, in such a case, the problem of evil is a delusion. A universal and immersive
delusion that our lives have a purpose and that things in this world are not as they should be. The hard truth, on this view, is that certain features of reality are just appalling and there are no answers to it. That is just the way that it is… But I think some people mistake these kinds of
answers as a solution. It seems to me, however, that they have not gotten rid of the problem – they’ve merely accepted that it is unsolvable. Mercifully, very few who espouse such a view are
able to live consistently with it. But for the person who truly understands and imbibes it, self-annihilation becomes a more sensible response. They have, in the end, accepted a philosophy that insists on hopelessness and despair. For on this view, life is ultimately meaningless and regardless of how we live our lives, it all ends the same.

The answer to the problem of evil, apart from the cross of Jesus, would be exactly what Richard Dawkins has described in The God Delusion.
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. 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.”

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