God, Suffering, and the Atheist’s Crutch

By Michael Coren

I have spent more than three decades justifying and defending the Christian faith, not so much in academic circles but in the public square, in newspapers and on radio and television. It is both the pleasure and the pain of being a Christian journalist. We are all surely painfully familiar with the usual attacks —bad Christians, slaver y, torture, Crusades, Holocaust, Inquisition, evolution and so on — but the one I still hear the most often is the old classic of why would a God who is all good, all knowing , and all powerful allow bad thing s to happen to good people. I tend to ask my audience to re verse the question : why would an all good, all knowing , and all powerful God allow good thing s to happen to bad people ? After all, while seeing good people suffer is horrible, it is not much fun seeing evil people having fun. It has to be said, though, that this question is sometimes asked in all innocence, by people with a genuine desire to understand what seems impossible to understand. Or, it is asked by people who have themselves suffered or whose loved ones have known grief and loss. How could God let this happen to me and to mine, why would God not stop this pain and help me? At its most severe, it can be devastating ; the abduction and murder of a child or a long and painful death of a kind and gentle person. The critic of Christianity would respond that God is either not all knowing , not all powerful, or not all good. Which, of course, implies that God exists in the first place. I would say that the question and even the problem are actually more of a difficult y and a conundrum for the non-believer than for the Christian.

I do not claim that my approach is the best one but I can assure you it has been effective. The materialist and the atheist, the y who would deny God, believe that at death all is over. Life is finished, it  is done and complete ;  we are dust, mere food for worms. To these people, pain has no meaning at all other than what it is : pure, unadulterated suffering , without any redeeming purpose. There may to the atheist be a certain formless heroism attached to the person who faces suffering with courage and without complaining , but if we are all body and flesh, and no soul and spirit, if we are mere products of a selfish gene and nothing more, one wonders why this heroism would in any way be significant. There is, though, a greater point, and that is that the atheist is convinced that these years we spend on Earth — perhaps 80 or 90 if we are lucky, and only a handful if we are not — are e very thing we have, and constitute the total human experience. Christians, on the other hand, believe that these years on Earth, while important and to be used wisely and also to be enjoyed, are a preparation for a far greater life to come. The y are, in effect, a thin ray of light from the great sunshine that is eternity and life in heaven with God. My end, as Mar y Queen of Scots had it, is my beg inning . And her end was at the sharp point of an axe, as she was beheaded on the orders of Queen Elizabeth. Queen Mar y was certain that there was an existence beyond that on earth, as have been myriad Christians since the time of Christ. While it is neurotic rather than Christian to welcome suffering , and no intelligent and comprehending Christian would welcome suffering for its own sake, the Bible actually makes it quite clear that faith in Jesus Christ and in Christianity does not guarantee a good life but a perfect eternity. Indeed  there  is  more  prediction  in  Scripture  of  a  struggle  and perhaps a valley of fear on Earth for the believer than there is of gain and success. There may be Christian sects that promise material wealth and all sorts of triumphs in exchange for faith but this is a non- Christian, even an anti- Christian bargain, and has never been something that mainstream and orthodox Christianity would affirm. Christians believe that this life on earth is only the land of shadows and that real life has not yet begun. So yes, bad thing s happen to good people.

Some might argue that Christian belief is merely an excuse to escape the harshness of reality, but that is no more reasonable than arguing that atheism is a mere excuse to escape the harsh reality of judgment, and the thought of an eternity spent without and away from God. The more important point, though, is that the oft-repeated criticism that bad thing s happen to good people says nothing at all about God, but every thing about human being s. Pain may not be desirable, but it is only a feeling , as is joy. Yet pain is not mere suffering , but also a warning sign and a way to protect us against dang er. That something may hurt is undeniable, and that we will all feel some sort of pain at some point is inevitable, but whether this pain is our doing or God’s is something entirely different. The all-knowing , all-powerful, all- good God allows us to suffer, just as he allows us all sorts of thing s, because we have the freedom to behave as we will. But he has also provided a place with the greatest contentment we can imagine if only we listen to him, listen to his Son, and listen to his church. As to the specific issue of pain and suffering , C. S. Lewis, who watched his beloved wife die of cancer, put it this way : “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains : it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God’s plan is for us to return to him, and to lead the best possible life on earth ; sometimes we need to be reminded of our purpose, and pain is a sharp, clear tool to achieve that purpose. A needle may be necessary to prevent disease or infection ; nobody welcomes or  enjoys the  injection,  but  it  prevents  a  far  greater suffering , just as what may seem like even intolerable pain now will lead to far greater happiness later.

Lewis also wrote :

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness . . . by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness — the desire to see others than the self happy ; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of any thing we happened to  like  doing ,  ‘ What  does it  matter  so long  as  the y  are contented ?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as the y say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’

Today this applies far more obviously even than when Lewis was working and writing — he died in 1963. If I want something , runs the modern idiom — and I experience this reaction almost every time I speak or write — I need something; and if I need something , thus I must have something . To the Christian, however, God knows our needs better than we do, and also knows that our wants and our needs are distinctly different phenomena . Which  leads to the challenge of why God would allow us to g o and do wrong , and to want something that is not necessarily to our eternal advantage, or even to our immediate good.

We  have freedom, and we have free will. We  have that free will because God, according to the Christian, is love, and no lover would allow any thing  else. A man who locks his wife away in  a room, even if he does so for what he believes to be motives of kindness and devotion, is not a lover but an abuser, and a parent who is so protective of a child that the youngster is never allowed to leave the  house will,  even for what  the y consider the  best of reasons, cause untold psychological damage to that young person. I always remember when our first child, a son, was around twelve years old, and attended a school a few miles from where we lived. We  had driven him to school each day, but it was now time for him to take public transportation. We worried about letting him g o off alone in the crowded and, frankly, sometimes dangerous big city. But it was time, it was the rig ht time. Off he went. And there was me, waiting at the end of the day, sitting by the door, anxious to see him come home. When  he did — totally ignoring me beyond a perfunctory teenage grunt of acknowledgement — which is the way it ought to be, I was so incredibly happy and relieved. My wife and I had to let him g o, but we were so relieved when he returned. Imagine, then, how God feels when we return home to him. He lets us g o, he sets us free, he acts as a loving father does, but he so much wants us home again. I was so happy when my son came home. That God allows us freedom, and sometimes a freedom to disobey, says every thing about God’s love for us, and nothing against it.

Yet while he wants us to return to him, he cannot force us to take this course of action, and if we choose an eternity without him what we have chosen is Hell. This is important, because a lot of people purposely or accidentally misunderstand the concept. Hell is not so much a place of punishment, as a place where we do not know and do not see God. We are creatures made in his image, made to love him and to be loved by him, and our vocation after this sojourn on earth is to be united with our maker in heaven. But we have a choice. We have freedom, we have the rig ht to choose, even the rig ht to choose to do the wrong thing . God in his ultimate love even  gives us the rig ht to choose not to return to him, and to choose to spend eternity without him, in a place we call Hell. So, atheists scream at a God in whom the y do not believe, for allowing them to reject him in whom the y do not believe, for allowing them to spend the rest of time in a place without him in whom the y do not believe. It is all a little odd and contradictory. The pain that must occur in heaven when we reject God and choose to live in a Godless place, is beyond our comprehension, but this freedom of choice proves God’s love and not his indifference.

Nor is it the case that he makes himself invincibly difficult to find, which leads to the accusation that a truly good God would make it easier, even inevitable and unavoidable, that we would all follow him and find our way to heaven. But this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of God’s involvement and intervention in history, and – again — of what choice is all about, and how intimate love and choice always have to be. If he made himself entirely obvious, only a fool or a masochist would purposely reject him, and he would effectively be giving us no choice at all. Intimidating as it may seem, we are also being tested, and judged — and judgment is the last thing that modern, western humanity is willing to be subjected to. But remember that that same modern, western person often complains about fairness, or lack of the same. It would be horribly unfair if anybody and everybody, irrespective of their choices, spent eternity in joy and completeness with God in heaven. So the same people who complain about bad thing s happening to good people would now loudly protest that it was wrong that such good thing s — actually the best thing s possible — happen to bad people, some of them the worst people possible. If he made himself almost impossible to find, God would be playing cruel games with us and would be loveless, like some supreme vivisectionist, possessing power but showing no affection and without any responsibility. So he makes himself entirely recognizable and attainable if we have the slightest inclination  to find him. He sent us monarchs, prophets, mart yrs, signs and symbols, miracles, and finally his son, to die in agony for us and then through the resurrection proved God’s love, power, and being . Not a bad set of clues when you think about it. If you think about it. But you do, yes, have to think about it.

So why do people think about it ? Seriously, why do people think so much about God, including  those who claim to hate him, or more commonly, to be indifferent to him? Like the little boy in the classroom who pulls the little girl’s hair, ostensibly because he does not like her or does not care about her. Actually, as we know, he thinks about her all the time, because in his little, unformed, and charmingly immature way, he loves her. I have often wondered why there are so many books written  by atheists, so many television programs made, and so many words expressed. If he does not exist, if there is no God, it would surely be more sensible and logical to spend your time writing and obsessing about something else, perhaps about something that does exist. But, they might counter, we need to say so much and so often because we need to help and liberate the other people (atheists often feel the need to educate all of the people the y think  to be stupid and beneath them), because those other people are ignorant of the truth. These wretched people, insist the atheists, have invented God because the y are weak and needy. Well, it could be true. Sure, God could be an invention, concocted by the weak and needy to help them though their sad lives. Then again, the absence of God, the non-existence of God could be an invention. It could be something invented by scared and threatened people who are too weak and needy to follow his laws and are terrified of his judgment. British play wright Tom Stoppard, not known for being a Christian or for defending God or faith, wrote in his usual pithy and delightful way that, “Atheism is a crutch for those who cannot bear the reality of God”; while the strongly Christian novelist and children’s author George Macdonald wrote in the nineteenth century with great insight, “How often we look upon God as our last and feeblest resource ! We g o to him because we have nowhere else to go. And then we learn that the storms of life have driven us, not upon the rocks, but into the desired haven.”

It is only one set of responses to one set of questions. But I guarantee that if we scrape away the anger of the Bill Maher types, the intellect of the Richard Dawkins types and the sheer ignorance — forgive me — of the usual college student types, it all comes down to one simple moan. I def y or deny God, therefore I am. Nothing new there, nothing new at all.

[Editor’s Note: Atheism image from Jan Matejko’s Stańczyk, 1862, found at  Wikipedia Commons.]