God in the Dock…Again
Once again someone has taken a shot at God’s character in an attempt to disprove His existence, and once again in so doing they have completely misjudged (by misreading) history. Or more accurately, “His-Story.”
This time it comes courtesy of Stephen Fry, a British comedian and actor who answered a question about his atheism that has gone viral among atheists. For them, it succinctly states their case against God. Namely, that a God that would allow the pain and suffering of this world to continue is no God at all, and therefore, no God exists.
The problem is that it wouldn’t hold up in any court. At least one that allowed the real story to come out.
And there is a story.
God made us in order to love us. We were tenderly crafted and designed, each as an individual, for the purpose of being related to, known, and deeply cherished. Yet this meant that we were also given the freedom to make choices with our life, to live as fully conscious, self-determining beings.
Even to the point of whether we were going to respond to the Creator’s love.
God did not choose to force Himself upon us against our will. Instead, He determined to woo us, knowing that in so doing, we might very well spurn His love. But this was the only way to have relationship be relationship.
The first use of this freedom to love was, as you might expect, made by the first humans, Adam and Eve. The tree in the middle of the garden stood as the great authenticator that the love between the first humans and God was real.
Then they chose to eat the fruit.
The Lover was spurned.
And all hell broke loose.
The decision the first humans made to reject God's leadership and an ongoing intimacy with Him radically altered God's original design for how the world would operate and how life would be lived. Theologians have termed this “the fall," and talk about how we now live in a "fallen" world.
In other words, we live in a world that is not the way God intended it to be. When Satan told Eve that if she ate of the fruit in the garden that she would not die, he lied. In fact, it was the day death and dying was born in to the human race.
And we’ve continued to make Adam and Eve’s choice ever since.
The results of our collective choice to turn away from God run so deep that it isn't just moral sin and evil that we face, but natural evil as well. The whole world is sick. In the Bible, we’re told that “...the whole creation has been groaning” (Romans 8:22, NIV). Which is why we have earthquakes and tidal waves, volcanoes and mudslides, wild-fires and birth defects, famine and AIDS.
Our world is "The Stained Planet," writes Philip Yancey. The pain and suffering and heartache is a huge cosmic "scream...that something is wrong...that the entire human condition is out of whack." Which raises a provocative point: that God is not behind what is tragic with this world, much less responsible for it – people are.
Or as G.K. Chesterton once wrote to the editor in response to a request by the London Times for an essay on the topic, “What’s Wrong with the World,”
In response to your article, ‘What’s wrong with the world’
– I am.
Now some will say, “Well, if He knew how it was going to turn out, He should have never created us, because everything from cancer to concentration camps just isn’t worth it.” Yet when we blithely say such things, we betray how little we know of true love. Yes, God took a risk. Yes, the choice He gave each of us has resulted in pain and heartache and even tragedy. Yes, it would be tempting to say that it would have been easier on everyone – including God – never to have endured it.
But that’s not the way love – real love, at least – works.
This is why suffering cannot be reduced to mere injustice, much less punishment. As a Time magazine reporter, attempting to understand Christianity’s unique perspective, rightly noted, “it is a harrowing invitation to a higher dialogue.”
That higher dialogue is love.
When one loves, there is risk – risk of suffering, risk of loss, risk of rejection. But without this willingness to be wounded on the deepest of levels, there cannot be authentic relationship on the deepest of levels.
As C.S. Lewis once observed,
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable...The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers...of love is Hell."
Some might say, “But why doesn’t God just wipe out all pain and suffering and evil?” Because in doing so, He would be wiping out all opportunity for authentic relationship. Free choice would be meaningless. But further, it would be cruel. If all evil were wiped out at midnight tonight, who among us would live to see the dawn?
No, he endures the pain that comes with the love in order to redeem as many of us who are willing.
But that’s not all.
He’s invested Himself in the process of healing the wounds that have come from our choice by entering into the suffering process with us in order to lift us out of it. God Himself in human form came to earth in the person of Jesus and suffered. He knows about pain. He knows about rejection. He knows about hunger, injustice, and cruelty - because he has experienced it.
An ancient graffito on the Palatine shows a crucified figure with a donkey’s head, bearing the inscription “Alexamenos worships his god.” While meant to disparage and even mock, the image rings true. We worship, as German theologian Jurgen Moltmann observed, the crucified God.
Jesus on the cross was God entering into the reality of human suffering, experiencing it just like we do, in order to demonstrate that even when we used our free will to reject Him, His love never ended. But this was not suffering for its own sake, but suffering so that we might use our free will and choose again.
And that this time, the choice would be the right one.
Frederick Buechner put it this way: “Like a father saying about his sick child, ‘I’d do anything to make you well,’ God finally calls his own bluff and does it.” The ultimate deliverance, the most significant healing, the most strategic rescue, has come.
So the real question is whether I will allow the reality of pain and suffering of this world to drive me away from God, or to God, where he can wrap his arms around me and walk with me through its darkest night toward the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
I am reminded how the song “40,” based on the 40th Psalm, often marked the end of U2 concerts following the events of September 11, 2001. As the band toured around the world in support of their CD “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” it resulted in tens of thousands of people nightly singing the refrain, “How long (to sing this song).”
Bono, lead singer of the group, reflected, “How long...hunger? How long...hatred? How long until creation grows up and the chaos of its precocious, hell-bent adolescence has been discarded? I thought it odd that the vocalizing of such questions could bring such comfort: to me too.”
But this is precisely what does bring comfort – hope that lives within the now and the not yet. Bold living in light of our fallen-ness, and a frank embrace of the realities of a fallen world, is the mark of faith. It embraces the emotional anguish, but never lets the emotions grow beyond the shadow of the character of God – or the knowledge of the story at hand.
The truth is that God loves passionately, and lives with the pain of that love more than we could ever imagine.
And that is the greater story – the one in which we must place our own.
James Emery White
Emma Barnett, “Stephen Fry and his atheist flock be damned,” The Telegraph, February 5, 2015, read online.
Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?
On Chesterton: This is widely attributed to Chesterton without protest, considered to be the basis for his 1910 work, What’s Wrong with the World, and has never been attributed to anyone else. Chestertonians consider it valid, and reflective of his humility and wit (see the official web site of the American Chesterton Society at www.chesterton.org), but alas, there is no documentary evidence.
David Van Biema, “When God Hides His Face,” Time, July 16, 2001.
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking.
Bono, Selections from the Book of Psalms.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.