That left us with God's attribute of goodness. "Good is a notoriously tricky word," Kreeft began, "because even in human affairs there's such a wide range of meaning. But the difference, once again, between us and God is certainly greater than the difference between us and animals, and since good varies enormously between us and animals, it must vary even more enormously between us and God."
"Granted," I said. "But if I sat there and did nothing while my child got run over by a truck, I wouldn't be good in any sense of the word. I'd be an evil father if I did that. And God does the equivalent of that. He sits by and refuses to perform miracles to take us out of dangers even greater than being hit by a truck. So why isn't he bad?"
Kreeft nodded. "It looks like he is," he said. "But the fact that God deliberately allows certain things, which if we allowed them would turn us into monsters, doesn't necessarily count against God."
I couldn't see his reasoning. "You'll have to explain why that is," I said.
"Okay, let me give you an analogy in human relationships," he replied. "If I said to my brother, who's about my age, 'I could bail you out of a problem but I won't,' I would probably be irresponsible and perhaps wicked. But we do that with our children all the time. We don't do their homework for them. We don't put a bubble around them and protect them from every hurt.
"I remember when one of my daughters was about four or five years old and she was trying to thread a needle in Brownies. It was very difficult for her. Every time she tried, she hit herself in the finger and a couple of times she bled. I was watching her, but she didn't see me. She just kept trying and trying.
"My first instinct was to go and do it for her, since I saw a drop of blood. But wisely I held back, because I said to myself, 'She can do it.' After about five minutes, she finally did it. I came out of hiding and she said, "Daddy, daddy-look what I did! Look at what I did!' She was so proud she had threaded the needle that she had forgotten all about the pain.
"That time the pain was a good thing for her. I was wise enough to have foreseen it was good for her. Now, certainly God is much wiser than I was with my daughter. So it's at least possible that God is wise enough to foresee that we need some pain for reasons which we may not understand but which he foresees as being necessary to some eventual good. Therefore, he's not being evil by allowing that pain to exist.
"Dentists, athletic trainers, teachers, parents-they all know that sometimes to be good is not to be kind. Certainly there are times when God allows suffering and deprives us of the lesser good of pleasure in order to help us toward the greater good of moral and spiritual education. Even the ancient Greeks believed the gods taught wisdom through suffering. Aeschylus wrote: 'Day by day, hour by hour / Pain drips upon the heart / As, against our will, and even in our own despite / Comes Wisdom from the awful grace of God.'
"We know that moral character gets formed through hardship, through overcoming obstacles, through enduring despite difficulties. Courage, for example, would be impossible in a world without pain. The apostle Paul testified to this refining quality of suffering when he wrote that 'suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. 13
"Let's face it: we learn from the mistakes we make and the suffering they bring. The universe is a soul-making machine, and part of that process is learning, maturing, and growing through difficult and challenging and painful experiences. The point of our lives in this world isn't comfort, but training and preparation for eternity. Scripture tells us that even Jesus 'learned obedience through suffering"'-and if that was true for him, why wouldn't it be even more true for us?"
Kreeft let the question hang in the air for a moment while his mental gears whirred. Then he continued. "Suppose we didn't have any suffering at all," he added. "Sup pose we had drugs for every pain, free entertainment, free love-everything but pain. No Shakespeare, no Beethoven, no Boston Red Sox, no death-no meaning. Impossibly spoiled little brats-that's what we'd become.
"It's like that old Twilight Zone television show where a gang of bank robbers gets shot and one of them wakes up walking on fluffy clouds at the golden gate of a celestial city. A kindly white-robed man offers him everything he wants. But soon he's bored with the gold, since everything's free, and with the beautiful girls, who only laugh when he tries to hurt them, since he has a sadistic streak.
"So he summons the St. Peter figure. 'There must be some mistake." No, we make no mistakes here." Can't you send me back to earth?" Of course not, you're dead.' 'Well, then, I must belong with my friends in the Other Place. Send me there.' 'Oh, no, we can't do that. Rules, you know." What is this place, anyway?" This is the place where you get everything you want." But I thought I was supposed to like heaven.' 'Heaven? Who said anything about heaven? Heaven is the Other Place.' The point is that a world without suffering appears more like hell than heaven."
That seemed hyperbolic. "Do you really believe that?" I asked.
"Yes, I do. In fact, if you don't, then pretend you're God and try to create a better world in your imagination. Try to create utopia. But you have to think through the consequences of everything you try to improve. Every time you use force to prevent evil, you take away freedom. To prevent all evil, you must remove all freedom and reduce people to puppets, which means they would then lack the ability to freely choose love.
"You may end up creating a world of precision that an engineer might like-maybe. But one thing's for sure: you'll lose the kind of world that a Father would want."
THE MEGAPHONE OF PAIN
Clue by clue, Kreeft was shedding more and more light on the mystery of suffering. But each new insight seemed to spawn new questions.
"Evil people get away with hurting others all the time. Certainly God can't consider that fair," I said. "How can he stand there and watch that happen? Why doesn't he intervene and deal with all the evil in the world?"
"People aren't getting away with it," Kreeft insisted. "Justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. There will come a day when God will settle accounts and people will be held responsible for the evil they've perpetrated and the suffering they've caused. Criticizing God for not doing it right now is like reading half a novel and criticizing the author for not resolving the plot. God will bring accountability at the right time-in fact, the Bible says one reason he's delaying is because some people are still following the clues and have yet to find him." He's actually delaying the consummation of history out of his great love for them."
"But in the meantime, doesn't the sheer amount of suffering in the world bother you?" I asked. "Couldn't God curtail at least some of the more horrific evil? One philosopher formulated an argument against God this way: First, there is no reason that would justify God in permitting so much evil rather than a lot less; second, if God exists, then there must be such a reason; so, three, God does not exist."
Kreeft was sympathetic to the problem, but wasn't buying that solution. "That's like saying it's reasonable to believe in God if six Jews die in a Holocaust, but not seven. Or sixty thousand but not sixty thousand and one, or 5,999,999, but not six million," he said. "When you translate the general statement 'so much' into particular examples like that, it shows how absurd it is. There can't be a dividing line.
"It's true that there are some instances where quantity does becomes quality. For example, boiling water: once a temperature of 212 degrees is reached, you get a new state-gas-and gas laws rather than liquid laws apply. But suffering isn't like that. At what point does suffering disprove the existence of God? No such point can be shown. Besides, because we're not God, we can't say how much suffering is needed. Maybe every single element of pain in the universe is necessary. How can we know?"
I chuckled. "I suppose a person could say, 'If I'm having the pain, then that's too much suffering in the world!"'
Kreeft laughed. "Aha, of course!" he exclaimed. "That's the subjective 'too much.' That's a classic case of anthropomorphism. If I were God, I wouldn't allow this much pain; God couldn't possibly disagree with me; God did allow this pain; and therefore there is no God."
"You said a moment ago that some pain might be necessary. That indicates there is a meaning to suffering," I said. "If so, what is it?"
"One purpose of suffering in history has been that it leads to repentance," he said. "Only after suffering, only after disaster, did Old Testament Israel, do nations, do individual people turn back to God. Again, let's face it: we learn the hard way. To quote C. S. Lewis: '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."' And, of course, repentance leads to something wonderful-to blessedness, since God is the source of all joy and all life. The outcome is good-in fact, better than good.
"Simply put, I believe that suffering is compatible with God's love if it is medicinal, remedial, and necessary; that is, if we are very sick and desperately need a cure. And that's our situation. Jesus said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.""i7
"But good people suffer just as much-or sometimes more-than the bad," I pointed out. "That's what's so striking about the title of Kushner's book: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. How is that fair?"
"Well, the answer to that is that there are no good people," Kreeft replied.
"What about that old saying, 'God don't make no junk?"'
"Yes, we're ontologically good-we still bear God's image-but morally we're not. His image in us has been tarnished. The prophet Jeremiah said that 'from the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain,"i8 and the prophet Isaiah said, 'all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.''i9 Our good deeds are stained with self-interest and our demands for justice are mixed with lust for vengeance. Ironically, it's the best people who most readily recognize and admit their own shortcomings and sin.
"We are good stuff gone bad, a defaced masterpiece, a rebellious child. Lewis pointed out that we're not just imperfect people who need growth, but we're rebels who need to lay down our arms. Pain and suffering are frequently the means by which we become motivated to finally surrender to God and to seek the cure of Christ.
"That's what we need most desperately. That's what will bring us the supreme joy of knowing Jesus. Any suffering, the great Christians from history will tell you, is worth that result."
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