Even if evil can somehow be explained away, random suffering still poses serious faith-based dilemmas.
This week I watched the movie The Shack (2017), based on the best-selling book of the same name (which I read several years ago). As literature so often does (and as I do in my soon-to-be-published Mad Jones trilogy), The Shack focuses on the question of why God allows evil to have free rein in our world. It is an age-old subject, one that scholars call “theodicy.” I’ve returned to this and related themes in these PJ Media columns several times, but have never been entirely happy with my own proffered theories. The answer remains elusive, to say the least.
In essence, the movie’s answer (I can’t remember if this precisely matches the namesake book’s answer) is that God suffers with us and finds ways to produce good, and love, out of evil even though He did not cause the evil — and, of course, that ultimately heaven awaits and makes everything okay. But, as always, I find that answer is a bit of a dodge (even when I’ve offered the same answer, or something similar) — and, when seen on screen, the dodge somehow shows up in starker relief. The direct question — “Why do you allow the evil to occur?” — is not directly answered.
Sure, there is the usual nod to free will being a necessary component of God’s love, and of course free will sometimes leads to bad choices. But even if that by-now-expected answer comes semi-close to explaining evil, it absolutely does not explain random suffering. A murder is an act of evil. But an excruciating death by cancer, for example, results from no evil, but from natural processes supposedly created (as all things are supposedly created) by God. But God as Creator surely could have produced a world, if He so desired, where even if deaths are a necessary part of life in order that the universe continue being regenerative, those deaths at least could be painless.
All the answers offered by theodicy do not solve the problems requiring a broader cosmodicy: Why must the suffering exist?
After all, why couldn’t God arrange most death — death that results not from human evil but from natural processes — to be merely something akin to a school graduation/commencement? Yeah, it could be sorta scary and unnerving to leave this earthly nest, with an unknown adventure ahead, but, like a commencement, why couldn’t it be a painless ceremony of release?
The New Testament repeatedly gives us the same answer that still (as touched on above) seems incomplete: namely, that suffering eventually leads to, and in some sense prepares us for, redemption.
For weeks now the Revised Common Lectionary has included readings from Peter’s letters in which Peter repeatedly returns to this theme, almost to the point of self-parody. In 1 Peter 1:6-7 (Second Sunday of Easter), he writes: “Even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials… the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fir — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
In 1 Peter 2:19-21 (Fourth Sunday of Easter) he writes: “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
The reading from Peter for the Sixth Sunday of Easter is similar, and then for this week, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, we have this (1 Peter 4:13-14, 5:10): “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you…. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
Okay, okay, we get it already: Christ suffered for us, so we should be willing to suffer for Him, because He will make it all okay in the end.
But why? Dadgum it, why? Why do we or He need to suffer? We’re told the devil is prowling about trying to lead men into evil things, but we’re not told why God created mosquitoes to spread malaria and other dread illnesses, or why He made some people so that they suffer excruciating migraines, or… well, you get this picture. The devil didn’t create mosquitoes, malaria, or migraines; God did. And frankly, it doesn’t make us feel a single bit better, physically, just because we are told that God suffers with us. It may make us somehow feel more kindly towards God to know that He is willing to undergo the very pain that He himself effectively caused by creating a world in which pain exists, but it doesn’t explain why the pain exists in the first place.
The Shack also tells us (sorry for the “spoiler” in terms of theme if not plot) that God knows more than we and that we shouldn’t judge God from our own inferior vantage point. Hmmmm… Does that admonition warm your heart? It doesn’t warm mine. (And it sure as heck didn’t warm my heart when the Book of Job offered basically the same admonition that we are too puny to understand God’s great design.)
Oh, well. In the end, The Shack essentially posits that God’s limitless love answers everything. And if, for us, that love Shack answer leaves us still feeling incomplete, well… do you have a better answer? And isn’t a possible answer better than none at all? Peter tells us that in the end the God of grace will “restore, support, [and] strengthen” His believers. That’s certainly better than not being restored, supported and strengthened.
Just how much better? We’ll never know unless we try.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication this summer by Liberty Island Media.