Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Problem of Suffering and the Existence of God

The Word of God is an offense. It was to Charles Darwin. He rejected the Scriptures because he couldn’t fathom how perfectly good people would have to endure eternal judgment just because they had rejected Christ. Bart Ehrman, head of the religion department at the University of North Carolina, similarly rejected the Word and God because of suffering. He balked at how a God, who is supposed to be all-powerful and all-loving, could allow the Katrinas and tsunamis.

Rejecting God because He fails to conform to our tastes or preconceptions has always been a common human response, especially among the privileged and educated. Naaman had been the “commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy” (2 Kings 5:1). Consequently, he swallowed his pride and journeyed to Israel to see a healer-prophet named Elisha, who gave the proud Naaman instructions to bathe in the muddy Jordan river seven times to heal him. This angered Naaman. Not only had Elisha snubbed him, but his instructions seemed ridiculous. Naaman reasoned that if he was to be healed, it should be in a clean Syrian river and not in the muddy Jordan! He now prepared to return to Syria, cursing the day he condescended to visit the prophet.

How we desire to be in control, maintain our “dignity” and live according to our own understanding, albeit limited! And how we scorn any of our needs that reveal our insufficiencies and insecurities!

Naaman’s wise servant reasoned with his master: "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed'" (2 Kings 5:13)!

These words of wisdom convinced Naaman to take the plunge and receive the healing for which he had come. How were the words of the servant so wise? They reflect the fact that we have needs that we cannot meet and powers that we lack. They also suggest that laying aside our “dignity” in the face of our predicaments might be the most appropriate response, instead of stubbornly clutching to our own ways and understandings.

In conclusion, we are all Naamans! We all face dying, death and many other painful limitations and infirmities. It is the height of arrogance to face down the forces pitted against us with the defiant assertion that “I’m the captain of my own ship, and I can navigate it just fine, thank you!” Indeed, we might be the captain, but ours is a ship that won’t stay afloat for long if we cling to self-trust and narrow judgments.

Scripture never asks us to park our mind by the door, but it does require that we become fittingly humble about our limited mental powers (1 Corinthians 8:2). In the midst of his inexplicable suffering, Job began to think that he had a great enough grasp of his situation to bring accusations against God. In the end, God didn’t show Job that he shouldn’t try to make sense out of his painful situation, but that he had to temper his indictments by the fact that he understood so little about God’s glorious creation and His sometimes inscrutable ways. God did this by asking Job a series of provocative questions, none of which Job could answer.

Darwin is long dead, but many Darwins still live. I think we can do them a great service by “modernizing” God’s questions:

1. Can you understand how everything came out of nothing?
2. Can you account for the origins of life, or even how just one of its many cellular machines came into being?
3. Can you account for the origin of the physical laws of nature or what maintains them, or why these laws act uniformly throughout the universe?
4. Can you count the stars or see to the end of the universe?
5. Can you even define life or light?
6. Do you understand the sub-atomic particles that comprise this material world? Can you predict their movements?

If we can’t answer these very basic questions, how can we condemn both God and Scripture for not agreeing with our assessments? Indeed, we can judge God, but it might bring down on us heaven’s laughter.

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