We were clearly moving toward the climax of our discussion. The clues Kreeft had mentioned at the outset of our interview were converging, and I could sense an increasing passion and conviction in his voice. I wanted to see more of his heart-and I wouldn't be disappointed.
"The answer, then, to suffering," I said in trying to sum up where we've come, "is not an answer at all."
"Correct," he emphasized, leaning forward as he pleaded his case. "It's the Answerer. It's Jesus himself. It's not a bunch of words, it's the Word. It's not a tightly woven philosophical argument; it's a person. The person. The answer to suffering cannot just be an abstract idea, because this isn't an abstract issue; it's a personal issue. It requires a personal response. The answer must be someone, not just something, because the issue involves someone-God, where are you?"
That question almost echoed in his small office. It demanded a response. To Kreeft, there is one-a very real one. A living One.
"Jesus is there, sitting beside us in the lowest places of our lives," he said. "Are we broken? He was broken, like bread, for us. Are we despised? He was despised and rejected of men. Do we cry out that we can't take any more? He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Do people betray us? He was sold out himself. Are our tenderest relationships broken? He too loved and was rejected. Do people turn from us? They hid their faces from him as from a leper.
"Does he descend into all of our hells? Yes, he does. From the depths of a Nazi death camp, Corne ten Boom wrote: 'No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.' He not only rose from the dead, he changed the meaning of death and therefore of all the little deathsthe sufferings that anticipate death and make up parts of it.
"He is gassed in Auschwitz. He is sneered at in Soweto. He is mocked in Northern Ireland. He is enslaved in the Sudan. He's the one we love to hate, yet to us he has chosen to return love. Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not wipe them away yet, but he will."
He paused, his confident tone downshifting to tentative. "In the end, God has only given us partial explanations," he said slowly, a shrug in his voice. "Maybe that's because he saw that a better explanation wouldn't have been good for us. I don't know why. As a philosopher, I'm obviously curious. Humanly, I wish he had given us more information."
With that, he looked fully into my face.
"But he knew Jesus was more than an explanation," he said firmly. "He's what we really need.
If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He's terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone."
Kreeft leaned back in his chair and let himself relax. There was only one more thing he wanted me to know.
"And for that," he said, "Ilove him. "
Less than an hour later, everything was quiet in the car as it snaked through Boston's rain-slickened streets on the way back to the airport. My friend Marc Harrienger, a long-time Boston resident, had graciously volunteered to drive me to and from Kreeft's office. Looking out the window at nothing in particular, I was reviewing the interview in my mind. Most of all, I was wondering how that African woman would have responded to the philosopher's earnest words.
Marc had sat through the interview, listening intently from a wooden chair propped up against the wall. This was not a topic of idle speculation to him.
He broke the silence in the car. "It's true," he said.
"What Kreeft said-it's true. I know it. I've lived it." Several years earlier, Marc had been shoveling snow on his driveway when his wife said she was going to move the car and asked him to watch their young daughter. As the car backed out, they were suddenly thrust into the worst nightmare that parents can imagine: their toddler was crushed beneath a wheel.
Like the African woman, Marc has known what it's like to hold a dying child in his arms. While I wasn't able to talk with that grieving mother, I could converse with him.
So deep was Marc's initial despair that he had to ask God to help him breathe, to help him eat, to help him function at the most fundamental level. Otherwise, he was paralyzed by the emotional pain. But he increasingly felt God's presence, his grace, his warmth, his comfort, and very slowly, over time, his wounds began to heal.
Having experienced God at his point of greatest need, Marc would emerge from this crucible a changed person, abandoning his career in business to attend seminary. Through his suffering-though he never would have chosen it, though it was horribly painful, though it was life-shattering at the time-Marc has been transformed into someone who would devote the rest of life to bringing God's compassion to others who are alone in their desperation.
In the pulpit for the first time, Marc was able to draw on his own experiences with God in the depths of sorrow. People were captivated because his own loss had given him special insights, empathy, and credibility. In the end, dozens of them responded by saying they too wanted to know this Jesus, this God of tears. Now other hearts were being healed because of Marc's having been broken. From one couple's despair emerges new hope for many.
"Sometimes skeptics scoff at the Bible saying that God can cause good to emerge from our pain if we run toward him instead of away from him," Marc said. "But I've watched it happen in my own life. I've experienced God's goodness through deep pain, and no skeptic can dispute that. The God who the skeptic denies is the same God who held our hands in the deep, dark places, who strengthened our marriage, who deepened our faith, who increased our reliance on him, who gave us two more children, and who infused our lives with new purpose and meaning so that we can make a difference to others."
I asked gently, "Do you wish you had more answers about why suffering happens in the first place?"
"We live in a broken world; Jesus was honest enough to tell us we'd have trials and tribulations." Sure, I'd like to understand more about why. But Kreeft's conclusion was right-the ultimate answer is Jesus' presence. That sounds sappy, I know. But just wait-when your world is rocked, you don't want philosophy or theology as much as you want the reality of Christ. He was the answer for me. He was the very answer we needed."
The existence of pain and suffering are powerful accusations against God. The question, however, is whether the evidence succeeds in convicting him. I thought Kreeft's deft analysis and analogies went a long way toward undermining this formidable obstacle to faith, but many other kinds of objections remained. This was just the beginning of a long journey of discovery, and I decided to withhold my final verdict until all the obstacles to faith were confronted and all the facts were in.
In the meantime, prominent British pastor John R. W Stott, who acknowledged that suffering is "the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith," has reached his own conclusion:
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. "The cross of Christ ... is God's only self-justification in such a world' as ours. 25
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