In a previous post, we touched briefly on the inability of atheism to help us make sense of human existence and suffering. More could be said to fill out that assessment of atheism, but we must turn now to the question of whether Christianity fares better.
What follows isn’t one protracted argument for Christian faith (and there are good ones we could employ), but it is rather a set of considerations that, in my view, press home the truthfulness, explanatory power and practical wisdom of the Christian faith in the midst of suffering.
- The Bible teaches that human beings are made in the image of the God, who is the sum and source of all wisdom, goodness and beauty. Human beings in a finite manner reflect God both in the qualities they possess (Eph. 4:24) and in their calling to participate in His wise reign over non-human creation (Gen. 1:26-28; Heb. 2:5-13). This is why human beings are not mere clumps of matter, but are distinctly beautiful, valuable and, when they die, worthy of mourning.
- The Bible also teaches that human beings have tragically chosen to rebel against our good Creator and His good ways. Having twisted our desires and come under the influence of a corruption that now lies within our hearts, we not only commit the odd sin, but are also, in fact, bent toward a pattern of sinful, selfish actions throughout the whole course of our lives. We knowingly choose to live in accordance with the corruption of our hearts. Sometimes, in choosing to enact their twisted desires and thoughts, human beings will go so far as to murder their fellow image bearers.
- In portraying humanity as originally upright and good (Gen. 1:31; Eccl. 7:29), appointed to live in rich communion with the triune God and joyfully cultivate the Earth with all its various possibilities, the Christian faith makes sense of why we automatically know that hatred, violence and destruction are intruders in human existence. They do not truly belong among us and, indeed, must somehow be eradicated. If we were mere clumps of cells who had evolved by impersonal forces, why would we automatically know this? It will not do to say that perhaps the discomfort of these things might be enough to make us want them gone. For we know, not just that these things cause pain, but also that they are objectively wicked and deplorable. Consistent atheism and materialism cannot even generate such irreducibly moral categories.
- The Bible gives us permission to ask hard questions of God. While the gods of ancient paganism were often depicted as emotionally unstable and preoccupied with maintaining their power and authority, the God of the Bible comes to us in poise and free condescension. To be sure, He reminds us of His holiness and sovereignty (see the end of Job). Yet, David and other psalmists poignantly give expression to human agony before God: “My soul is in deep anguish. And you, O Lord – how long?” (Ps. 6:3). This aspect of biblical piety is taken up by Jesus Himself on the cross when He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; cf. Ps. 22:1). The Christian faith gives us permission to be honest about reality and to wrestle with it. Indeed, it has no stifling doctrine of karma, no supposed one-to-one correspondence between past sins and present sufferings. The Christian faith, therefore, gives us permission to acknowledge that we almost never know why a specific tragedy has occurred. It gives us space to lament, and that is a profoundly sane thing to do in light of the events we have recently seen. Though we often forget just how much the beliefs and practices of Christianity have influenced the West, there is a sense in which an atheist who feels free to call God out in the face of evil and suffering owes a great debt to the teaching of the Bible and the God who stands behind it.
In the next and final post, we will continue examining some ways in which the Christian faith supplies not only the theoretical but also the practical resources requisite for living well in the face of suffering.
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