Answering in the Negative: What Suffering Isn’t?

Over at CNN’s religion blog, Timothy Keller wrote a bit about the age-old problem of pain and suffering: what do we conclude about God when we observe suffering for some people and not for others? He suggests and dismisses a number of responses, including “There is no God,” which he says doesn’t really help solve the problem; “God is not in control,” which stands at odds with our normal conception of God, and thus is unhelpful in this case; “God rewards good people, and punishes bad people,” which Job easily refutes; and, finally, “God knows better, so be quiet,” which Mr. Keller finds ‘cold.’ While I tend to latch onto the last answer, at least in my personal life, I suspect he’s on to something when he dismisses it for these reasons. It takes a certain personality type to run with that answer.

The conclusion he does reach, however, is strangely negative:

We don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.

So the answer is not that we can understand the mind of God, but that we should look to his actions and measure whether or not he should be trusted to make these sorts of decisions. That’s actually a pretty useful metric for interacting with living beings other than God; after all, actions speak louder than words, don’t they? He concludes with a statement about our needs:

What we truly need is what little children need. They can’t understand most of what their parents allow and disallow for them. They need to know their parents love them and can be trusted. We need to know the same thing about God.

While I think Mr. Keller is spot on about a number of things, this last bit gave me pause. If we don’t need the answers, why do we all seek them so fervently? Many people spend their lives attempting to understand why God does what he does, either because they are unsure about God’s existence to begin with, or they have simply seen enough suffering that their usual intellectual state is one of struggling rather than one of peace.

Some do need answers of a kind, though. Much like Dante had to travel through Hell to reach Paradise, so do some skip that journey altogether; we all walk different paths, and so we have different needs. The question I keep coming back to, however, is simply this: is a non-believer intellectually primed to respond to suffering in a way that is consistent with Mr. Keller’s suggestion? In other words, believers may be satisfied, at least temporarily, by the reminder that God loves them and has acted as such in the most powerful of ways–that is, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–but it seems like an odd point to throw at those who already disbelieve.

There’s a similar line of thinking when you talk about religious belief a bit more broadly: some people are more disposed to trust certain forms of evidence (say, physically observable) while others may just as quickly trust testimony of witnesses. These different dispositions may function as keys to ‘unlocking’ certain bits of evidence that may actually support or count against any particular thesis; if you are completely opposed to witness as a valid piece of evidence, it will be more difficult for you to believe in the resurrection of Christ than someone who puts weight on the number of recorded witnesses to Christ’s life and ministry. This applies to a number of topics, of course, but the point is simple: not all answers or arguments are persuasive for all people.

This doesn’t make Timothy Keller’s answer here wrong or even misguided; it simply makes it narrow. It will satisfy those who are willing to let love trump suffering, those who already believe God exists and is good, or those who aren’t currently struggling with the question. Don’t avoid these answers, though: God’s love is absolutely a vital part of understanding the problem of suffering; just don’t expect non-believers to take much stock in it. Remember, our answer happens to appear directly contradictory to the evidence being thrown at us; love stands in opposition to suffering, and few would say it stands as proof that the suffering is acceptable.

Image via Wikipedia.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).