Suffering is one of those topics where much ink is spilled and soul searching done. I had undertaken a little pondering of the topic myself during my illness and assumed I'd grasped the basics.
Some suffering is a result of sin, or certainly of our own doing, like selfishness. Some can ultimately be beneficial in the sense of lessons learned and some, quite unexplainable, unlucky or even inevitable like accidents and death. We are to seek God in all things, remain planted in Him, His grace will be sufficient, a bruised reed He will not break, and all things would work out for the good and this could quite legitimately mean in the next life, not this one. Christians are to expect hardship like anyone else, we're not immune from it, and quite possibly singled out for a special dose of persecution. This is all because we live in a fallen world, so God's ultimate purpose is not always able to triumph in the immediate, but, we're assured, does so in the long term.
To some extent some, I can grant, suffering can serve a use, challenging people to become a better version of themselves. But then there is some suffering that seems so clearly unnecessary, so gratuitous that it makes your eyes bleed and nothing gets close to justifying it.
I remember the shock I felt at William Lane Craig's argument on animal suffering which was essentially to hand-wave it away by stating that, other than higher primates, we can't really say animals really suffer in the sense that we do. It seemed a little heartless and I suspect most of us would wince watching a bunny being slowly torn into pieces by a fellow animal. This was WLC's explanation as to why there wouldn't have been suffering before the Fall of man. It wasn't suffering. Simple.
With regards human suffering, Lane Craig and other theists on the Unbelievable? show, ultimately concede at some point, that we don't know why there is so much horrendous suffering in the world but that it must be justified to some extent, as in God must have his reasons, or at the very least, things will be made right in the future. This, of course is conjecture, rather than any type of evidence. Whilst the notion that Jesus understands your suffering, having suffered Himself, is quite possibly reassuring to someone in the midst of a difficult situation, it still leaves you very much with the thorn in your side as well as the additional cognitive dissonance that arises from the difficulty of reconciling a loving God to pain and strife. Telling me Jesus is the answer, has not, in my experience, been of any help to me, and what I feel is quite possibly just a psychological effect, on others.
A particularly poignant example of gratuitous suffering was the newspaper story, and in particular it's photograph, of a father watching his young daughter dying in agony from cancer. You can tell me all you like, Jesus loves the little ones, but I cannot see any point to extending suffering only to allow the person to die. Nothing justifies an innocent child in agony. Nothing. The idea that this deity sits and watches such situations with all the power in the world to stop it, is unfathomable.
In his book and subsequent interviews, Justin states that for him, suffering without God is meaningless. Quite possibly. But for me, such suffering with a god is simply absurd at best, and cruel at worst.
Epicurus puts it best with his idea rejecting the notion of evil with an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. It can of course apply to suffering too.
God willing to prevent suffering, but not able? Then he is not
If he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
If he both able and willing? Then why is there suffering?
If he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
No amount of books, explanation, sermons and teaching will ever make theodicy go away for Christianity, nor can it, or the issue would be put to bed by now. It's a continual stumbling block to belief, which is never truly answered, much less an explanation given as to why it has arisen in the first place. And this brings me to my next deal breaker.
The Biblical story and its reason for the existence of evil, is bizarre from the get-go. The heavenly host is hanging around WITH God, basking in His amazing presence and glory in heaven - the place we're all shooting for, and one of the creatures gets ideas above his station.
At the slightest whiff of this rebellion, not one or two angels, but one-third of the heavenly host weigh their options and say “meh, we're off with the other guy”. This is something that makes literally no sense whatsoever. How can this even begin to happen? Why is anyone falling from anything? Is heaven not all that? Are they bored? Are we to deduce there are power structures in heaven? What on earth is going on? And bonus question: why give these naughty cherubs any sort of power over humankind?
I've never heard of a good reason for this occurring beyond the issue of the Lucifer's pride, which doesn't even begin to address the issues involved.
Researching this infamous and most feared character of the Bible, the devil, I discovered some illuminating facts. Satan was, in fact, a title for someone in an adversary role. Someone hindering an aim. The Jews never thought of it as a Being. An angel, a person and even God could be referred to as a Satan (see 1 Chronicle 21: 1 and 2 Sam 24:1). Beelzebub and Lucifer also have different origins. They tended to all get jumbled together along with Eden's snake to come up with the being of the devil. And, since a purpose-based reason is a balm to our minds, bingo; you've got an origin for all the problems humans face.
Furthermore, it transpires that there's a conflation of ideas for hell, thanks to Jewish ideas about the spirit world and the wider context the Israelites found themselves in. Sheol, the Jewish view, is some undefined underworld, the grave, which has no notions of judgment or punishment. Hades came from the Greco Roman ideas circulating at the time and finally, Jesus' mention of Gehenna referred to the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem. These were all baked together to bring us the doctrinal cake of hell.
As notional Satan let out his last few wheezy puffs, the construct of hell and all that had terrified me since childhood, vanished.
In any case, during my evolution in thinking, it had been increasingly difficult to reconcile a loving deity, who created creatures who would, by the billions, only serve as eternal kindling sticks for hell's fire. Of course, I'd always understood, God wasn't the one who sent you to hell. You wilfully bought your own ticket whilst in pure rebellion to Him. However, the evangelical Christian idea that somehow if you don't believe in this god, and in particular in the right way, you would burn forever, became absurd in the extreme. I had listened to too many people who had earnestly attempted to believe, that I could not, and eventually would not believe in a god that would condemn these people to hell. Moreover, it wasn't without irony that I noted that the Great Unwashed usually possessed superior morality than this monster deity: When asked if they would condemn people to everlasting torment, most people seem to agree a punishment should fit the crime. At no point is that eternal conscious torment, as at some juncture this becomes disproportionate punishment and certainly not justice. I would more happily entrust my chances with an atheist ruling on my soul, than this god.
In the process I had therefore dialled down the belief in a supernatural afterlife from 'you deserve to burn you heathen sinner' to Annihilationism, where Justin seems to have landed for now, then towards Universalism, until finally giving up completely on the idea.
Whilst not a literal young earth creationist, I had always held some fuzzy beliefs about early man. I will not waste time on this, but needless to say, it doesn't take much research to educate yourself that we most definitely evolved, that other hominids walked the earth and that they came and went into existence and extinction. Other than the initial conditions which give rise to biogenesis, we've pretty much got the process mapped out.
With the evidence being pretty clear, it was obvious that Adam and Eve had to be allegorical. Ultimately, it's a story about humankind sinning and grieving Yahweh. However, it struck me that death, suffering, pain, fighting and bare-knuckle survival had been with us from day one, before modern man graced the planet. Animals and hominids, like Neanderthals, would hunt and kill each other, and I'm sure there was painful and hideous suffering before homo erectus ever graced this earth. Something killed off the dinosaurs and 98% of the species who ever lived are now extinct. There has been a lot of death happening a long time before mankind ever got here to mess it up.
In addition, understanding more about human psychology and neuroscience, I discovered that many of the things Christians consider “evil” in fact had a perfectly scientific explanation. Psychopaths have a different brain structure which means they don't experience empathy. For survival we have evolved different parts of the brain which take over unwittingly and override our more logical reasoned parts; we have innate weakness and are subject to influences from hormones, biological diversity, adrenal surges etc. In essence, we have our humanity which it could be argued is far from perfect, but it is not the result of A Fall. It is exactly as you'd expect it would be as by-product of evolution.
With no Satan, hell or human fall, there is no real explanation as to why evil and suffering exist. Even, the free will argument which somewhat relies on these constructs, and states, that if there is no possibility to sin, you cannot have free creatures who liberally come to love you, doesn't work. This argument, often brought up on the show, completely misses the fact that God can in fact arrange paradise, with free will and exempt from suffering, pain and the devil. It's called heaven.
I no longer knew what I was supposed to be saved from, and what relevance the death and resurrection had. If there is no fall, and no devil, and we are born through no choice of our own into a terrifying world of natural disasters and unregulated human impulses, by what logic are we supposed to be groveling for forgiveness and needing to be saved? Besides, like human parents, let's be honest, God could just choose to forgive us. There is no need to murder anyone. It was making less and less sense.
Moving to biblical historicity and in particular the gospels, this was probably the biggest shock to the system. I had assumed that I understood the Bible was held in great esteem and you had to be wilfully evil, or stupid not to take it seriously. With an Alpha course under my belt, Nicky Gumble had assured me things were rock solid when it came to the New Testament. Any discrediting of the gospels was therefore promptly filed under “Satanic attack”. Of course the Devil would seek to undermine the Bible. This made perfect sense.
With no theological training, much less skills in deciphering ancient literature or scholarly work, I started to pick my way through to the best of my abilities. I would continue to explore until I felt I'd reached a consensus. What I found boiled down to this:
The gospels were oral traditions written decades after the death of Jesus with the earliest being Mark dated at around 70CE and ending with the discovery of the empty tomb, and the latest gospel being John, possibly as early as 90CE.
They are all of anonymous authorship and certainly the earliest manuscripts didn't include the title by which we know them today.
They do not claim to be authored by eyewitnesses to any of the events they describe. They are not written by people who knew Jesus.
We do not have the originals, only copies of copies of copies of copies of copies. They are written in Greek by educated people living in a different country to Palestine. Jesus' disciples would have spoken Aramaic, were quite possibly illiterate and were living in Palestine.
Jesus himself, other than some writing in the sand, leaves no written record (which would have been very helpful), nor did He ask anyone to make notes as they went along.
In addition, major events are undocumented by other sources, such as when the graves spill out their dead onto the streets after the resurrection mentioned only in Matthew. If these are in fact gross error or made up, how are we to distinguish what else is or isn't invented or erroneous in the text?
In a general sense, we know there are scribal errors, amendments, passages added later such as the woman caught in adultery, or the end of Mark. Words are miscopied, or changed, like whether Jesus is 'angry' or 'full of compassion' towards a leper. There are hundreds of contradictions and errors. It's unlikely the beatitudes happened in their said form. The story of Nicodemus relies on wordplay in Greek which doesn't work in the Aramaic language they would have spoken. We know Matthew and Luke copied large parts of Mark, we know that the gospels get more fanciful the later they were written, we know that the early ones don't make claims of Jesus being God and say little about his early life. We know there were forgeries circulating as Paul mentions them. We know Paul didn't write many of the letters attributed to him such as Hebrews, and he wasn't even an eyewitness.
Add to this, the only mention of Jesus in the first century outside the gospels being the Josephus Flavius Testimoniun, which it is almost certain was tampered with, and there's nothing much of note about God on earth until centuries later.
What has now settled in my knowledge as a given, horrified me when initially discovered. I have since learnt that many seminary students leave the faith because of these findings.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to square this fact with a God who was supposed to be intent on having a relationship with us. Had he really been so lackadaisical as to leave us with this poor evidence? It is argued that the gospels are some of the earliest and best-attested documents you can hope for when dealing with ancient text, and that may be, but couldn't God have done a little better, especially given he has the foresight to the many splinterings and issues that would arise in the future? Could he not see to the basic preservation and transmission of the texts? Could He not have used the opportunity with Jesus to dictate some notes Himself clearly?
Along with Biblical texts, I discovered the Christian story wasn't that unique. There are many Mediterranean myths of creator gods, gods overthrowing each other, saviour gods, and gods with miraculous birth stories. Jews and Christians borrowed from Zoroastrians who introduced them to the concept of resurrection. In fact, the Maggi that visit Jesus are what the Zoroastrians called their priests (Maggios). Stories of world floods could be found elsewhere as well as some of Jesus' miracles such as turning water into wine.
Whilst letting go of Biblical inerrancy wasn’t a huge step for me personally, I know many who give up at this juncture. Dropping inerrancy and brushing most of the Old Testament under the carpet to concentrate on the New Testament and the person of Jesus gets you some way to making the Bible a more palatable read. I even got to the point where I saw it as a collection of books, some poetry, some literature, some myth, written by a specific tribe at a specific time for a specific context which has to be interpreted carefully and wrestled with through different times and cultures. They don't necessarily need to inform doctrine. And as for 900 year old men, or women of 90 giving birth, or talking donkeys and snakes and parting seas, of course these are clearly legend and nothing more, but they may point to higher truths.
That held me for a while.
However, some of the other final nails in the coffin were the quite blatantly retrospective crow-baring of verse in the Old Testament to suit a New Testament narrative, in particular, the ones Christianity claimed to support Jesus as the Messiah. It's ironic that Jews, even to this day, still don't accept this and don't view the Old Testament verses as being prophetic in nature. The prophecies are nothing more than a post facto interpretation.
My suspicion is many Christians never read the entire Bible, and mostly what is preached are cherry-picked verses and sermons from the New Testament. Whilst I had read the entire book, the latter had certainly been my experience. Why is it no one ever preaches on the graves spilling out their dead in Matthew?
One of the things that struck me in my research was that I noticed many who come into contact with Yahweh are left, well, unimpressed. You've got the devil, and a third of heaven; Adam and Eve who are communing closely with God but as soon as His back is turned, doubt all he's told them. Why? Is He not coming off as credible? There are the historic figures of the faith who had special treatment and saw God up close, like Moses, and ones who were spoken to directly, like Abraham, but who keep messing up, so un-impacting is the experience. The Israelites kept going rogue despite their favoured treatment; Jesus' own parents didn't pick up on who he is completely; his own brother James, only comes to believe after the resurrection. Your brother is the Son of God and nothing tips you off? Seriously?
There is often talk of the minimal facts for the resurrection, but let's not forget Paul would have known them. He knew Jesus had been crucified and there were claims He had risen from the dead. Paul presumably could connect with Christians (given he was persecuting them) and quiz them. He could have spoken to some of those who saw the resurrected graves in Jerusalem. He knew all the minimal facts and quite possibly a good few others, but only his personal revelation convinces him. Why should we be any less sceptical in the absence of a personal revelation?
Finally, with a garbled message to some desert-dwellers only communicated 4,000 years ago and in its “right” form only 2,000 years ago, we're supposed to accept this as the one true way when man has been around for around 150,000 years. It isn't very impressive.
The vast array of differing viewpoints within the panoply of Christianity is stupendous. Right from the start there are different beliefs springing up around the person of Jesus with each faction calling the other out for heresy. One version survived and occasionally gets reinvented.
Mainline Christianity considers Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons as heretical and other faiths as plain wrong, but in some ways, why? Why do we discount the latest revelations from God through CT Russell, Joseph Smith or even Mohammed, but remain happy to base our theology and beliefs on Augustine, Irenaeus and later, Calvinism or Luther? Why should any of these be more or less wrong in conveying God? From what I can surmise, no one can agree on anything. From penal or substitutionary atonement, to the predetermined elect, to women’s ordination, to the length and duration of hell, to post-death conversion, to heaven or a new earth, to the second coming, to years of tribulation, to how we receive forgiveness, or obtain salvation, to God's view on LGBT issues - there is a smorgasbord of options available to you. The truth, the one true way? Right.
In the end, it was too incredulous for me to believe that a group of people in the desert 4000 years ago were singled out by God as “special”. It seems divisive and bound to fail as a concept. No one likes a favourite. The Jews believed in a monotheistic god who helped them slay their enemies and win battles. It was about territory and land. God then confuses them with a triune godhead which they still don't understand to this day. Could He really not think of another way? Could He not reveal himself to these other nations simultaneously, why was it just the Jews who had the right brand of understanding?
In the end I totally lost my appetite to hear the end of any sentence from Christians beginning with “Jesus clearly says…” or the “Bible is unequivocal on…” often focusing on one word and how it was used and what we can derive from it to create doctrine that Christians can bash each other over the head with. It made me queasy.
It strikes me that, you don't even have to look very far to find non-resistant unbelievers. The Bible is full of them. Jews. They believe in the God of Israel, they've written the book for goodness sake, they don't struggle with the translation issues that we have to contend with, they received the prophecies, they met with, talked to and had direct intervention from, God. They are positively tipped in favour of a belief in the messiah and future Trinitarian God. They simply miss it. They're still looking. They don't get it. Jews are non-resistant unbelievers to Christianity.
Occasionally there is a talk with a non-resistant unbeliever on Unbelievable?. I have yet to hear of a decent reason why such a person should exist. The best Justin and his guest Frank Turek, could come up with in relation to a guy called Tom who attends church regularly with his Christian friend, but can't bring himself to believe, was that whilst they admit Tom is a genuine seeker, he has to fall into the “not yet” category of prayer answering. With time, they are confident that such a genuine seeker will find a way to God. This completely ignores the issue that many don't come to faith despite trying, or many who seek to shore up their existing faith, as I did, end up de-converting. And, it doesn't even begin to explain why God would prefer to continue hiding when He is apparently desperate to have a relationship with us. The existence of just one non-resistant unbeliever seems to completely debunk the assertion that God is interested in us.
At the same time he acknowledges the problem of evil as the atheist’s greatest objection, Justin fails to take it seriously enough in his book. He trivializes the unspeakable suffering experienced by millions by comparing it to a newborn’s birth cries. This false equivalence is a failure of empathy and lack of perspective. But to take his comparison seriously, one must still explain why god thinks it is okay for a baby to enter this world in confusion and terror. It is just assumed that there are good reasons for it.
David and Skydivephil take slightly different approaches. Many in the project wanted to take a shot at this subject. And while two chapters don’t exhaust our response to the topic, we also had to keep it from becoming a book in and of itself. We strongly believe that if Christians took this problem even more seriously, there would be fewer Christians.