Pain, Suffering, and Morality

March 14, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments


AuschwitzI’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking lately on suffering and its effect on faith.  In one way, I can’t help but believe and even assert that there is every reason to question God in the face of great suffering.  Elie Wiesel’s gut-wrenching account of his time in a Nazi concentration camp comes to mind not only as a natural response to pain and suffering, but as a needed one:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget these flames that consumed my faith forever.[1]

Elie’s description of his first night in a concentration camp should arouse in us nothing other than horror, grief, and sympathy.  Although I don’t know precisely how I would react to such an experience, I would be naïve to think that Elie’s reaction could never be my reaction.  The scene is just too jarring.  The brutality is just too disgusting.  The deaths are just too agonizing.  I too could question God.

And yet…

Some did not respond to the concentration camps the way Elie Wiesel did.  One survivor of the camps, Alex Seidenfeld, in an interview with the Associated Press, said simply, “We stayed alive.  We survived.  How could this have happened without the almighty?”[2]

Elie looked at all those who died and asked, “How can God be?”  Alex looked at all those who survived and asked, “How can God not be?”  Elie looked at all those who died and angrily shouted, “God didn’t stop this!”  Alex looked at all those who survived and declared, “But God did save some of us from this!”

The question of where God is in the face of suffering is really a question of God’s role in the midst of suffering.  Is God’s role to stop us from suffering or to save us through suffering?  In one sense, it is both.  But the first role, at least according to Scripture, doesn’t find its full expression until later, at the end of days.

Ultimately, I would argue that, even if God does not stop all suffering, it is difficult to surmise from the existence of suffering that God does not exist.  C.S. Lewis famously explains why:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.[3]

C.S. Lewis puts his finger on the reality that the problem we have with suffering is that we believe and perceive that it is, in some sense, wrong.  It is unjust.  But if we reject God, we lose the privilege of saying that anything is wrong or unjust because, without God and His ordering of the universe, standards of organized morality disappear into the ether of a universe that coalesced around the free-for-all of chance.  This world and all that is in it, to borrow a phrase from the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, is nothing more than “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.”[4]  In this view, suffering exists in the same way that a ball that lands on black 22 on a roulette wheel exists.  It just happens to happen sometimes.  There is nothing more to be said about it, at least not morally.

Arguing against a moral God in light of what is perceived to be immoral suffering, then, is an argument that collapses on itself.  You can’t argue against God using a framework that has its basis in God.  Either suffering just is, or it is somehow just wrong.  To question how there can be a good God who allows bad things assumes that, even if implicitly, there is a God and that, in some regard, He is not playing by His own rules, or at least by what we perceive to be His rules.  If this is the case, it may be fair to ask Him, “Why?”   But, as a Christian, I would propose that it might be even better to ask Him for help.  From what I hear, even if God doesn’t always stop suffering, He is quite adept at blessing people in suffering.

_____________________

[1] Elie Wiesel, Night (New York:  Hill and Wang, 2006), 33.

[2] Aron Heller, “Observant survivors keep the faith after Holocaust,” The World Post (1.26.2016).

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  Harper Collins Publishers, 1980), 38

[4] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 12 (London: Routledge, 1985).

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Entry filed under: Devotional Thoughts. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Faith and Morality Christianity, Culture, and Comparison

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cleanmo2016  |  March 14, 2016 at 5:23 am

    It’s inherent of [spiritually dead] mankind, and even untrained saved, to “dump” the depravity of humanity on God. The ultimate cop-out. No responsibility of/for actions.
    GOD provided Paradise. Mankind rejected it for an egotistical/inflated, hubris reality of their own making. God is not to blame. It’s not His problem. HE, however is the refuge.

    Reply
  • 2. Mona  |  March 14, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    What a GREAT BLOG. Thanks Pastor Zach.

    Reply

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