After Paris, Atheism? Part 3

A memorial with candles and flowers By Steve Duby Posted on February 02, 2016  in  [ Theology & Ministry ]

In the previous post, we touched on several reasons why the Christian faith gives us both the theoretical and practical resources for dealing with suffering. This last post carries the line of thought forward by adding a few more considerations to the four thoughts from the previous post.

  1. When we do lay our difficult questions before God (see the fourth reason in the last post), the Christian faith gives us a unique and startling picture of who God is. It is one thing to decry evil and suffering before one who has chosen to stay above the fray; it is another to do this before the God who Himself has undergone the pain of betrayal, abandonment, loneliness, false accusation, injustice, mockery, physical abuse, spiritual anguish, crucifixion and death. While it is important to remember that the Father and Spirit did not take up a human nature and suffer as we do, one of the Trinity (the Son), who is no less God than the Father or Spirit and no less human than you or I, lived and suffered as the “man of sorrows” (Isa. 53:3) who tasted death for us all (Heb. 2:9). Recognizing that one person of the triune God to whom we pray has voluntarily done this for us does not answer the question “Why?” in any specific instance of suffering, but it certainly places our questions and prayers in a new light. For the God of the Bible knows firsthand what it is to deal with the realities of human suffering. Might we then be encouraged to trust that He is truly invested in the outcome of history and will make good on His promises?
  1. The gospel creates a community of people, the church, gathered around the person and work of Christ, and this community is a place of solace in the midst of suffering. As the apostle Paul writes, the God of Scripture is the “God of all comfort” who in comforting the saints enables them to minister that same comfort from God to one another (2 Cor. 1:3-7). If one part of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers (1 Cor. 12:26), and it is included in the “law of Christ” that we should bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). In an age when we hardly know the people in our own neighborhoods and sometimes try to replace real human contact and camaraderie with Facebook and Twitter, there is nothing so refreshing and reorienting as participating in the life of the church and finding a home and a people with whom we can grieve and grow and laugh, and who will, when necessary, bring us back from our erring ways to love and serve our crucified and risen King (James 5:19-20).
  1. The Christian faith informs us that there is meaning in the midst of suffering. Suffering is a miserable part of human existence, and we are right to want it gone. Yet, according to the Christian faith, we can still trust that it is meaningful. God does not permit suffering as one surprised by natural disasters or malicious human choices. Instead, He permits it insofar as it is taken up into His good plan to redeem a people for Himself. He uses suffering to shape us into mature human beings who are patterned after Jesus, who is the image of God (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:28-29; Heb. 12:10; Jas. 1:2-4). And this Jesus to whom we are conformed through suffering is not a joyless Jesus; rather, He is the one who endured the cross, not only because it was noble, but also because of the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2). Atheism cannot offer enduring comfort and assurance in the midst of suffering, and various eastern religions urge us to escape it by forfeiting our personal identity and desires. Christianity, however, assures us that our personal, good God will ultimately wipe every tear from our eyes and eradicate death and mourning (Rev. 21:4).
  1. The Bible also promises that there is a judgment coming, when God will bring justice against all evil and oppression. “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). If we deny that God exists, then we cannot look forward to a decisive moment when the world and its inhabitants will see everything put right. To think that humanity could eventually progress on its own toward a utopian society in which perfect justice will be upheld is naïve, and, even if humanity could do this, it would not bring justice for all the wrongdoings of the past. But, according to the Christian faith, our cries that something must be done about the evil and injustice in the world will be answered when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.
  1. Finally, though Christians should be encouraged by the fact that history is ultimately in the hands of God, our faith does not call us to passivity. Sometimes one is given the impression that atheism is the truly humanitarian perspective, because it doesn’t rely upon a supernatural being to sort everything out and bring relief to people in need. Aside from the fact that atheism doesn’t give a satisfactory account of why human beings are worth caring for in the first place (see the first post in this series), we should always remember the biblical calls to action done in the name of Christ and for the wellbeing of others. Paul and the other apostles were adamant about “remembering the poor” (Gal.2:10; 2 Cor. 8-9). James tells us that “pure religion” that is acceptable to God entails caring for orphans and widows (1:27). According to the author of Hebrews, “doing good” is “sacrifice” pleasing to God (13:16). In short, God’s sovereignty does not lead us to inactivity. On the contrary, it animates our work and reminds us that we will ultimately give an account of our lives to God (2 Cor. 5:10).

In the end, when we face suffering in the world and wonder why a good God would allow it, it’s crucial that we keep these truths in mind. Moreover, when we are tempted to deny God’s existence or concern for the world, we do well to consider what the alternative looks like: belief in a universe without true purpose.

Atheism may look attractive for a moment, but this is in large part because it often gets a free pass and is not asked to provide its own constructive account of human existence and suffering.  It is allowed to have a purely negative function (denying that something is the case, namely, that God exists), without trying to persuade about what positively is true.

I suggest that we not give it that free pass and that we remain in Christ, knowing that He still bears the marks of His crucifixion in His resurrection body and will, in due course, come again in glory, mercy and judgment.

Grand Canyon University is an interdenominational Christian university. To learn more about our Christian identity and heritage, visit our website.

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Living Faith is a Christian blog that interacts with a variety of biblical, theological and practical topics written by Grand Canyon University's College of Theology faculty and specially invited guests of the college. Our content provides practical and biblical advice from a Christian worldview for living our faith in the midst of an increasingly secularized world. In addition, our content wrestles with cultural topics and issues that challenge how we live out our faith as believers. For this reason, contributors to our Christian blog strive to write with compassion and apologetic concern to honor Christ and edify the church in every way possible.


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