When I was a seminary student, I heard the tragic story of another seminary student who lost his faith. “Justin” had come to Christ in college through the witness of some of his fraternity brothers. He was smart, articulate, athletic, and popular, and became a Christian leader on campus almost immediately. He started a large, growing Bible study and brought several of his fraternity brothers to Christ. During his senior year, he began to date one of the most popular Christian girls on campus, and by the end of the year they were engaged. That summer, when Justin sensed a call to full-time ministry, no one was surprised.
Justin’s meteoric rise continued in seminary. Professors often remarked how insightful he was, and his mentor convinced him to press on toward advanced biblical studies. Everything went well until his final semester. As he worked on his master’s thesis, Justin received a phone call from his mom telling him that his dad had filed for separation. Justin was devastated. He had been sharing his new life in Christ with his mom and dad, and he thought they were close to believing.
Shortly after his parents separated, doctors diagnosed Justin’s mother with an aggressive stage-four cancer. Justin hoped that, if nothing else, the cancer would draw his parents toward Jesus and bring them back together. But Justin’s dad got involved with a younger woman and soon filed for divorce.
It was around this same time that his fiancée unexpectedly broke off their engagement. She offered no real explanation, only that she didn’t love him anymore. Justin’s whole world was crumbling.
Justin kept asking God why. He knew the seminary answer—God has a good purpose for everything in our lives. He believed God was good, so he prayed for a miracle—in his parents’ marriage, with his relationship with his fiancée, and for his mom’s health. But his parents never got back together. His fiancée eventually married someone else. Then his mom died. Shortly after the funeral Justin found himself on his face before God screaming, “Why, God? Why aren’t you answering my prayers?”
Then a thought occurred to him: “Maybe the reason God hasn’t answered my prayers is that he’s not actually there.” The thought had been hovering there in the back of his mind for quite some time. But in this moment that explanation seemed so compelling—like the only explanation that made sense. Justin stood up and wiped away his tears. In a last, desperate attempt, he opened his Bible and asked God to speak. For over an hour he searched for some verse that would alleviate the pain.
At about 3:00 a.m. he carried his Bible downstairs, set it in a fire pit, doused it with gasoline, and struck the match. He went back upstairs and gathered his master’s thesis and several Christian books and burned them too. He described it as his moment of “de-conversion.”
The subject of his master’s thesis? Old Testament perspectives on pain and suffering.
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: THE #1 DESTROYER OF FAITH
Maybe you’ve struggled with questions like Justin’s. How can a loving God allow seemingly pointless tragedy? Where was God in the Holocaust? Why isn’t God doing more to fix the refugee crisis?
Maybe for you the questions are less philosophical and more personal: Why am I suffering? Why won’t God fix my parents’ marriage?
The inability to understand the “why” of God’s ways has been the greatest challenge to faith since the beginning of time. It certainly has been mine.
Bart Ehrman, the notorious agnostic professor of New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina, surprises students every semester when he tells them that what made him lose his faith in seminary was not his problems with the supposed “contradictions in the New Testament” for which he has become famous. Rather, he couldn’t understand how a loving God could leave the world in such a broken condition. I once was in the audience when a student asked him, “Is there anything that would cause you to regain your faith?” In response, he quoted a passage from his book, God’s Problem:
I think that if, in fact, God Almighty appeared to me and gave me an explanation that could make sense even of the torture, dismemberment, and slaughter of innocent children, and the explanation was so overpowering that I actually could understand, then I’d be the first to fall on my knees in humble submission and admiration.
For Ehrman, the problem is not suffering itself; it’s suffering for which he can discern no justifiable purpose.
Like I said, this problem is certainly not a new one. A good portion of the Bible recounts the confused cries of committed believers struggling with God’s apparent lack of involvement in their suffering. Men like Moses, Job, David, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Paul wrestled with this question with the same bewilderment as Justin and Bart Ehrman.
The basic problem that suffering presents to faith in a good God goes like this, stated first by Epicurus in the fourth century BC:
If God is all-powerful, he could stop suffering. If he is all-loving, he would want to stop suffering. That purposeless suffering exists shows that God does not exist.
Or the short version of it: If he’s good, he would. If he could, he should. That he doesn’t means he can’t or he won’t, which really means that he isn’t.
The logic insists that suffering’s presence in our world not only brings into question God’s wisdom and power, but his very existence.
Slam dunk? No.
Is it a difficult question? Yes. But concluding “God does not exist” is not the only—or even most compelling—answer.
Epicurus’s challenge misses a couple crucial and obvious premises: If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then he is also all-wise. And if his wisdom is as far beyond ours as his power is above ours, it shouldn’t surprise us that much of his “why” is beyond our immediate ability to understand.
Greear, J. D., and David Jeremiah. 2018. Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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