This week I started reading The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Evangelical Presbyterian (PCA) and mega-church pastor Timothy Keller. Although today I feel most at home in mainline denominations, I grew up in an Evangelical church, and I was very active in an Evangelical ministry throughout my time in college. Keller’s type of Christianity, Evangelical Christianity, is in some sense written in my bones, regardless of whether I have grown to like it or not.
Growing up as an Evangelical Christian, I was constantly reminded that Jesus loves me. This abstract belief became real through the love that I witnessed within my community of faith and through personal experiences of God during prayer and worship.
But sometimes it’s hard to believe in the love God. For me, the persistence of hurt in the world is the best reason to not believe in a loving God. If God is really in control of everything, and if God really loves us, then why does God allow people to go on hurting? Why doesn’t God providentially stamp out cancer, hunger, war, racism, and tsunamis?
Keller picks up this kind of question in a chapter appropriately titled “Why Could a Good God Allow Suffering?”. He gives familiar answers:
- God intends to bless us through each tragedy, even if we can’t see that blessing from our human perspectives on this side of death.
- Jesus came and suffered just like any of us, so God can relate to us
- In the final resurrection, all pain will cease and we will each have ideal lives, erasing the pain of our earlier life
Those are, give or take a point, the kind of answers that I grew up with. But they don’t work as well for me as they once did. Keller’s first point, in particular, bothers me.
Does God have a purpose for pain?
Keller insists that God intends to bless us through our pain. The implication here is that the rampant hurting we see throughout history is somehow guided by God. (Otherwise, how could God “intend” it to bless us?) The notion that God is in control of cancer, genocide, and starvation is extremely troubling. It contradicts every notion of love that I have encountered inside or outside of church. As long as I’m a Christian worth my salt, I’ll agree with Tripp Fuller: God must be at least as nice as Jesus. And to state the obvious, a God who rains suffering down from on high is not as nice as Jesus.
Keller would likely object, insisting that I’m using my tiny human judgment to judge the infinitely complex character of God. If God is complicated enough to create and “run” the world, then God must be complicated enough to have good, unknowable (to us) reasons for allowing each tragedy, right?
To be fair, I think Keller is right – God could, perhaps, be spreading pain in ways that will somehow turn out to benefit everyone. In the same sense, a sufficiently complicated God could intend to fashion each person into a strip of bacon in order to build the biggest pile of bacon that has ever existed. Why not? If God is sufficiently complicated, then God could, in theory, have any sort of arbitrary behind-the-scenes master plan, despite whatever seems most real to us.
Paul said “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial.” I say to Keller: all ideas about God are possible in theory, but not all ideas about God are believe-able. Whether we look to Jesus and conclude “God is love” or we look to the perpetuation of pain and conclude “this cannot be love,” we are making risky, limited human judgments. I cannot look at the Holocaust, along with all unspeakable human tragedies, and say “a loving God made this to happen.” I can’t even say “a loving God wants this to happen.” Instead, I venture into the much more uncertain territory of “a loving God doesn’t want this to happen.”