The No. 1 argument, not only today but throughout history, against the existence of God is this: “If there’s a loving and all-powerful God, how can He allow the human race – His children, made in His image – to suffer so terribly?” This question has often been called “the rock of atheism.”
In “Letter to a Christian Nation,” atheist scientist Sam Harris hammers this point relentlessly. “At this very moment,” he writes, “millions of sentient people are suffering unimaginable physical and mental afflictions, in circumstances where the compassion of God is nowhere to be seen, and the compassion of human beings is often hobbled by preposterous ideas about sin and salvation.”
Attempting to rub the reader’s nose in the age-old mystery of suffering, Harris continues:
“Somewhere in the world, a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe – as you believe – that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this. Is it good that they believe this?”
“No,” answers Harris, who adds cryptically: “The entirety of atheism is contained in this response.”
From the day’s news, Harris calls forth still more examples of great suffering as proof God doesn’t exist:
The city of New Orleans, for instance, was recently destroyed by a hurricane. More than a thousand people died; tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions; and nearly a million were displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Hurricane Katrina struck shared your belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while Katrina laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Do you have the courage to admit the obvious? These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend.
Mankind has grappled for millennia with the mystery of suffering, and how it can be compatible with an all-powerful and benevolent God. Let’s take a fresh look at this question for a few minutes and see if perhaps we can catch a glimpse of an elusive but far greater reality.
To do this, I’d like to introduce another famous author angrily condemning God as cruel and sadistic. See if you can guess who the speaker is:
What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, “good”? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? … If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine.
So, who do you think this is, ranting and raving about God’s cruelty?
The ever-fuming atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens? Or perhaps the haughty atheist Oxford professor Richard Dawkins?
No, actually it’s another Oxford professor, far more famous than Dawkins, and whose intellect and writings dwarf Hitchens’. It’s C.S. Lewis, one of the twentieth century’s most influential authors and defenders of the Christian faith.
As you may know, Lewis was an atheist for the first part of his life. But through a gradual awakening during his early thirties, he became convinced of the existence of God, and later – with the help of “The Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien and another colleague – embraced the Christian faith. Through his books, such as “Mere Christianity” (voted the best Christian book of the 20th century by Christianity Today), “The Screwtape Letters” and many others, including of course his beloved series “The Chronicles of Narnia” – he has helped countless people in their journey toward God.
So, you must be thinking, these angry anti-God words from the great C.S. Lewis must have come from his early, whacked-out atheist years – right?
They were written after “Narnia,” after “Mere Christianity,” after all the acclaim of an appreciative Christian world. They were written, to be precise, after the 1960 death of Lewis’s wife, Joy.
For most of his life, well into his fifties, Lewis had been a bachelor. Then he met Helen Joy Davidman, a gifted American writer and poet of Jewish background who had converted from atheistic communism to Christianity, in part due to Lewis’s writings. After they corresponded for several years, she moved to England and they married in 1956, when Lewis was 57.
Both of them knew Joy had bone cancer – in fact, they were married at her hospital bedside.
Amazingly, Joy experienced a dramatic remission, during which time the couple lived together happily, and traveled and enjoyed each other to the fullest. But this blissful period was short-lived, and Joy died when her cancer returned with a vengeance in 1960.
In his 1961 book, “A Grief Observed,” Lewis records for posterity his intense bereavement, including his very real angers and doubts about everything he had written and taught about a “loving God” for decades, and does it in such a raw and uncensored manner that he originally released the book under the pseudonym of N.W. Clerk, so readers wouldn’t associate it with him.
Let’s see how Lewis responded to this severe personal suffering, and what conclusions they brought him to regarding God.
After first expressing his anguish over Joy’s death, Lewis gets straightaway to the big question: Where is God when you need Him? When you’re happy, the author muses, so happy that you don’t even seem to need His help, God is there welcoming you “with open arms.” But when you’re desperate, when no one else can possibly help or console you and you turn to Him, what do you get? “A door slammed in your face” – and then, silence. Wait all you like, but all you get is more silence.
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God,” Lewis writes. “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.”
Indeed, sounding like Sam Harris and other atheist authors, Lewis asks, Who or what can possibly make us conclude that God is actually good, when most everything that happens in this life seems to “suggest exactly the opposite”?
What about Christ? Doesn’t his selfless life and sacrificial death demonstrate God’s goodness, as all Christians affirm? Maybe so, says the tortured Lewis, but then, what if Jesus’s words on the cross – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) – were actually the evidence of God’s malevolence? What if the dying Jesus had “found that the Being He called Father was horribly and infinitely different from what He had supposed” and that the whole savior-of-mankind thing was just a “trap,” one “long and carefully prepared” and “subtly baited” by God, who at the last minute, with Jesus nailed to the cross, finally sprung it? “The vile practical joke,” he speculates darkly, “had succeeded.”
Wow. What happened to the wise, deep, and enlightened C.S. Lewis, the one who for a generation introduced millions to the Christian faith?
In his literary fit of despair, Lewis goes on to ruminate about another “vile practical joke” God appears to have played – this time on him and his beloved. Every attempt he now makes at prayer, he complains, is “choked” by memories of all the prayers he and Joy had offered and all the false hopes they had clung to, encouraged by “false diagnoses, by X‑ray photographs, by strange remissions,” including one “temporary recovery” that seemed almost miraculous. So, although he and Joy had once dared to believe that perhaps God’s grace was guiding her recovery, writes Lewis, it now seems evident that while thus leading them on, God “was really preparing the next torture.”
The next morning, Lewis thinks better of his agonized rant, asking if it is really rational to believe in a “bad God,” or as he puts it more pungently, “the Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile?”
Starting now to come back to his senses, he asks, “Why do I make room in my mind for such filth and nonsense?” Isn’t all this fuming just a miserable attempt to transform pain into something more bearable, “the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?”
Eventually, his grief and doubts about God fully vented, his rage spent, Lewis begins to reconnect with his natural understanding and reverence for his Creator. A few weeks have passed, he’s recovered from his physical exhaustion, and he’s more lighthearted. His inner relationship with God now restored, Lewis affirms the truism that “these things are sent to try us,” quickly clarifying that he realizes God wasn’t “trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”
Finally, Lewis admits a shattering but liberating personal truth:
He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize that fact was to knock it down. …
And he offers a useful metaphor to explain the powerfully redemptive use God makes of human suffering: Bridge players, he says, insist there must be money on the game or else no one will take it seriously. Life is just like that, he explains. One’s “bid” for good or evil, for eternal life or oblivion, won’t be serious if there is nothing clearly at stake. It is only, he says, when we realize “the stakes are raised horribly high,” when we see unmistakably that everything we have, everything we are or ever will be, is staked on the “game,” that we’ll take it seriously.
“Nothing less will shake a man – or at any rate a man like me – out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs,” Lewis confesses. “He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses.”
Why do you suppose one person who suffers a tremendous personal loss also loses his belief in God, while another goes through the same experience and – despite all his transient doubts and angers – emerges with his faith intact and stronger than ever?
Why did some people survive the Nazi Holocaust only to conclude there is no God – or no God worth knowing if He would allow such suffering – while other Holocaust survivors emerged from that ordeal with a deeper faith in the Almighty?
What words can describe this mysterious quality? Humility, blessedness, grace? It’s actually beyond words, perhaps some unexplainable connection between our soul and God, some back channel that enables us to keep attuned to a proper perspective regardless of difficult circumstances.
That special quality – C.S. Lewis had it – is the secret ingredient that makes the good things that happen to us truly good, and the bad things also “good” in the sense that they have a redemptive value, because God uses them to perfect us. In the same way, for people who live from the energy and motivation of pride, which in turn is connected to the invisible realm of evil, the bad things that happen remain bad (non-redemptive), but even the “good” things (success, wealth, fame) aren’t ultimately good, either, because they just build pride, in ever-increasing conflict with God.
But if we find this special quality I’m talking about, our lives, including all the difficulties and suffering, can become part of what Lewis called God’s “grand enterprise,” full of adventure and discovery.
I’m not talking necessarily about our outer journey of life, which may or may not be particularly exciting. I’m referring to the inner adventure we’re meant to experience, whereby through progressive realization and repentance, we are inwardly transformed in our Creator’s image, and for his purpose. The beauty of such a life is subtle and private – no one else will know about it – but it’s surely more magical than anything in “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “The Lord of the Rings” or the Harry Potter books or any other fantasy from the mind of man. Because we are living characters, set in a story not from the mind of man, but from the mind of God. And that story is full of wonder.
After all, said Einstein, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
We’re surrounded by miracles of God. An acorn falls to the ground and effortlessly grows into a towering oak tree – a transformation that, if it occurred in a few seconds, we’d consider pure magic. The entire world would be transfixed by this dramatic, paranormal phenomenon, news organizations from all continents would converge on the locale of the “miracle tree,” and all would be wonder and awe. But, since that exact same miracle unfolds in slow motion over the course of 50 years, we think nothing of it. We constantly walk past such marvels, oblivious.
In the same way, we also bypass the potential miracles of character growth within each of us because we don’t understand God’s methods. They can take years. And sometimes our miraculous transformation is brought about by adversity and loss – but only if we endure it with patience, dignity and faith.
To put it plainly, God works miracles through the things we suffer. Even Jesus Christ “learned obedience” that way, according to the Bible: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:8–9).
So, even if we are hurting, even if we are “knocked silly” like C.S. Lewis, all is not lost. Like the acorn that dies to itself but is transformed into a giant oak tree, when we die to self and come alive as something better – a change often brought about by the things we suffer – there’s magic in the air, the magic of a genuine and eternal walk with God.
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