Shared Belief: The Problem of Pain

Part of Shared Belief, a series responding to Alisa Childers’ article on progressive Christianity and atheism.


#2: “They May Have an Unresolved Answer to the Problem of Evil”

To put it simply, the problem of pain is as follows:

God is:
A) Ominpotent (All-Powerful)
B) Omniscient (All-Knowing)
C) Omnibenevolent (All-Good or All-Loving)
But pain, evil, and suffering exist.
Therefore, at least one of the attributes to God must be false because:
A) An all-powerful God would have the ability to prevent pain.
B) An all-knowing God would know that pain exists and how to prevent it.
C) An all-good God would desire only what is good and pleasant for the world.

For many, as Childers points out, this problem is a major impediment to theistic belief. Alt-rock band Modest Mouse voices this doubt with agonizing beauty in their song “Bukowski” making the bold claim “If God takes life, he’s an indian giver,” before continuing:

If God controls the land and disease,
Keeps a watchful eye on me,
If he’s really so damn mighty,
My problem is I can’t see,
Well who would want to be?
Who would want to be such a control freak?
Well who would want to be?
Who would want to be such a control freak?

In theology, attempts to defend God from the apparent contradictions in the problem of pain are called theodicies.

From the outset, it’s important to note that theists of various religious and denominational perspectives have posited different answers to this problem over the millennia. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, confronted with the destruction reigned down by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, wrestled with how to understand the Lord’s faithfulness to the covenant. Was God too weak to defend Israel and Judah? The author(s) of Job put forward a hypothetical argument as Job, his wife, and his friends argue about the source of Job’s suffering — until the Lord appears in a whirlwind to brush them all aside. In the aftermath of barbarian invasions, Augustine struggled to express his faith in God as Roman society crumbled; his answer is spelled out in The City of God.

Contemporary disasters, both human-inflicted and naturally-occurring, provoke questions about divine goodness in the face of human pain. John Wesley believed God caused earthquakes, while some modern pastors have suggested that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for American sin. Jewish theologians and philosophers are still debating how to understand the Holocaust. And one can safely predict a surge in church attendance after events like September 11, 2001 or the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami as people look for answers about where God is in the midst of such awful news.

To be certain, the Church catholic has yet to arrive at a single, concise, satisfactory answer.

And so, as Childers claims that progressive Christians have “an unresolved answer” to the problem of pain, she is again misrepresenting the situation. Just as with her claims that progressive Christians doubt biblical authority, she is again arguing against straw men and tilting at windmills.

In the article on Scripture, I pointed out that Childers cherry-picks her quotes from authors like Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans. Her “evidence” in this section is even weaker. She cites to noted atheist (but gifted comedian) Stephen Fry, the Christian-turned-atheist Derek Webb, and the Christian-turned-atheist-turned-theist Lisa Gungor. To be certain, for many atheists and former Christians, the problem of pain is a reason for unbelief. But none of these cases demonstrate that progressives are atheists in the making; it only shows that some formerly progressive Christians left the Church because of the problem of pain.

We’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post, but this is a key theme in Childers’ argument. She presents a simplified narrative in which orthodox Christians become progressive Christians become non-believers, as though progressive faith is only a rest stop for those becoming atheists. In reality, for many of us, progressive faith is the destination rather than the end result. For others, progressive forms of Christianity never enter into the equation; they simply leave the Church directly — either from fundamentalist groups or the mainline denominations. At no point did these people consider progressive forms of Christianity. (It’s also worth noting that not all former Christians are atheists.)

Returning to the topic at hand, though, let us consider a single progressive Christian approach to the problem of pain. I root my understanding of pain in what Gustav Aulen termed the Christus Victor model of atonement: that while death and the grave may have swallowed Christ for a time, he rose victoriously and, in his Resurrection, shattered the grave, defeated sin, and conquered death. Redemption, then, is God’s ability to rescue us from our captivity to sin and death.

For the problem of pain, this means that God is redeeming (read:rescuing) us from pain. It is no secret that we live in a fallen world, that all of God’s creation is marred by sin. Demonic foes rage, and so disease and disaster cause pain; there is, in fact, evil in the world. But because Christ is risen, we know that we too will rise. Our redemption is already assured and erupting into this world, but it has not yet fully arrived.

Our redemption is already assured because Christ is risen. Our Lord is the First-Born from among the dead, the new Adam of re-creation.

Our redemption is erupting into this world through the Sacraments, through miracles, and through the Church’s healing work. And so even though natural disasters are, in a word, evil, the Church can show God’s redeeming love through its actions in the face of such evil.

Our redemption has not yet fully arrived because Christ has not yet arrived in glory. There will come a day when all of creation is restored and every tear is wiped away. Until that day, we wait. While we wait, we comfort those who mourn, feed those who are hungry, care for those who are sick, and, above all, we pray.

To put it simply, from my perspective, suffering is not redemptive in and of itself. Rather, the Church does redeeming work in the face of suffering.

When Paul says God works all things for good, this does not mean that hurricanes and wildfires and famine are all secretly somehow good things. On the contrary, they are quite evil. The Resurrection is God’s good work, and through it, God is rescuing us from evil.

Compare this to the view held by many in Childers’ circle of fundamentalist Calvinists. In these circles, exemplified by theologians like Wayne Grudem and John Piper, pain is part of God’s plan. Grudem, in his book Systematic Theology, argues that suffering is part of God’s divine discipline to punish us for our sins and to correct our behavior. John Piper described a tornado which struck Minneapolis as a “gentle but firm reminder” to the ELCA, which had just approved the ordination of LGBT clergy. On Piper’s website, Desiring God, one writer argues, “But God brings suffering in our lives for the sake of our eternal joy — yes, even glory.” And CJ Mahaney, the disgraced leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries, is known for answering inquiries about his well being with something along the lines of, “Doing better than I deserve,” his way of indicating that he deserves nothing but wrath and suffering.

For this theological perspective deems suffering as something to be rejoiced because, in the words of Heath Ledger’s Joker, “It’s all part of the plan.” These theologians would argue that suffering is not evil but rather part of God’s divine sovereignty. In the most extreme cases, these thinkers and their followers believe that God actively causes pain.

To do so is to deny the reality of sin and the reality that all of creation has fallen. Like Pangloss naively claiming that this is the best of all possible worlds, Childers’ teachers make the foolish claim that pain, suffering, and evil are in fact part of God’s sovereign plan to make the best possible world.

I don’t doubt that Piper would take issue with my summary. He would point to human sin as running counter to the divine plan and that God’s infinite wrath had to be poured out on Christ to atone for the infinite offense of human sin. And yet Piper et al would also argue that we cannot violate God’s sovereignty and that Christ’s horrific death was always God’s plan for humanity. For these self-styled Calvinists, then, God has set all of this in motion and in total control, responsible for all that is good, and yet humans are responsible for our own sin. We are responsible for rejecting God, and yet God elects whom God will save. The result is a confusing mess of bad theology which desires to recognize human failures without weakening the “control freak” God’s power over the world.

In these circles, because God is in complete control, we cannot complain about our sufferings. Have cancer? Rejoice and don’t weep. Abused by your husband? God is using your suffering to teach you obedience. Mourning a dead family member? You must not be relying on God.

This theology perpetuates abuse, encourages us to turn a blind eye on those who have need, and is, in a word, σκατα. John Piper has encouraged women to submit to abusive husbands, and CJ Mahaney has concealed rampant sexual abuse within his ministry.

And so while Childers says that progressive Christians have an unresolved answer to the problem of evil, the truth is that progressive Christians recognize that evil and suffering are problems. Modern resurgent fundamentalist Calvinism, by comparison, denies that suffering is evil.

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