"I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or, worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe, 'God always geometrizes.' Supposing the truth were 'God always vivisects'?"—C. S. Lewis
In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the death toll from a killer cyclone stands at 78,000, with 56,000 people still missing. At least 1.5 million are hungry, hurting, homeless and in desperate need of supplies.
In China, the death toll is equally staggering. Some 80,000 people have been confirmed dead by the 7.0 scale earthquake, and at least 20,000 are missing. Countless more are without shelter, food or medicine.
How do we explain such tragedies in light of the fact that in most churches it is taught that there is a God who is loving and all-powerful? If this is true, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering in the world? Is God simply a cosmic sadist or a monster who visits mayhem, destruction and death on innocent people?
Natural disasters have wreaked havoc on the planet since its beginning. But all the pain people have had to endure has not come by way of so-called acts of God. People hurting people accounts for much of the suffering of humanity. It is people, not God, who produced the wars, bombs, guns, whips, racks, prisons, torture and so on. It is people who pollute and destroy the ecological environment, thus helping to create more adverse weather patterns. And it is human avarice and stupidity, not the workings of nature, that explains much of the poverty and suffering which exists.
Nonetheless, there remains much suffering that is unexplainable. According to reports released by the United Nations, approximately one in seven people in the world—that's 850 million—don't have enough food to eat. Every five seconds, a child dies of starvation. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases estimates that between 400 and 900 million children, almost all of them in Africa, contract an acute case of malaria every year. And an average of 207 million people die of it every year. That's more than 7,000 a day, 300 every hour, 5 every minute. The list goes on and on.
The question is, why is there suffering of any kind? And why would a so-called "good" God allow suffering? If there is a good God, according to theologian C. S. Lewis, then he is no less formidable than a cosmic monster. And if God hurts only to heal, as traditional Christians believe, there is little hope in avoiding the pains of life. "A cruel man might be bribed—might grow tired of his vile sport," writes C. S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, "might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless."
Thus, according to Lewis, if there is a good God, then pain and suffering are necessary. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. And how do I (or anyone, for that matter) expect to escape the same? After all, God, according to Christian tradition, killed his own son.
Likewise, disasters such as recently happened in Myanmar and China show us that, in an age of cosmic alienation, we really do not understand God. "What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, 'good'?" wrote Lewis. "Doesn't all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite?"
Applying the word good to God is meaningless. Obviously, what God considers good—at least by the standards of some theologians—is radically different from our perception. In fact, maybe we are so intellectually and morally depraved that we cannot fathom what a good God is.
We are not the commanders of our fate. We are not gods. We are frail, vulnerable beings hoping (and praying) that somehow we can communicate to that one who determines our fate. So many questions remain. But as C. S. Lewis recognized: "When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, 'Peace, child; you don't understand.'"
Where does this leave us? Suffering just comes, and we need to deal with it the best we can. As professor Bart D. Ehrman writes in his book on suffering, God's Problem (2008), we should "work hard to make our world the most pleasing place for others—whether this means visiting a friend in the hospital, giving more to a local charity or international relief effort, volunteering at the local soup kitchen, voting for politicians more concerned with the suffering in the world than with their own political futures, or expressing our opposition to the violent oppression of innocent people."
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.