Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to; or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, and does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how comes evil in the world?
The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God's justice and love.
John Stott, theologiani
As an idealistic young reporter fresh out of journalism school, one of my first assignments at the Chicago Tribune was to write a thirty-part series in which I would profile destitute families living in the city. Having been raised in the homogenized suburbs, where being "needy" meant having only one Cadillac, I quickly found myself immersed in Chicago's underbelly of deprivation and desperation. In a way, my experience was akin to Charles Templeton's reaction to the photo of the African woman with her deceased baby.
Just a short drive from Chicago's Magnificent Mile, where stately Tribune Tower rubs shoulders with elegant fashion boutiques and luxury hotels, I walked into the tiny, dim, and barren hovel being shared by sixty year-old Perfecta de Jesus and her two granddaughters. They had lived there about a month, ever since their previous cockroach-infested tenement erupted in flames.
Perfecta, frail and sickly, had run out of money weeks earlier and had received a small amount of emergency food stamps. She stretched the food by serving only rice and beans with bits of meat for meal after meal. The meat ran out quickly. Then the beans. Now all that was left was a handful of rice. When the overdue public-aid check would finally come, it would be quickly consumed by the rent and utility bills, and the family would be right back where it started.
The apartment was almost completely empty, without furniture, appliances, or carpets. Words echoed off the bare walls and cold wooden floor. When her eleven year-old granddaughter, Lydia, would set off for her half-mile walk to school on the biting cold winter mornings, she would wear only a thin gray sweater over her short-sleeved, print dress. Halfway to school, she would give the sweater to her shivering thirteen-year-old sister, Jenny, clad in just a sleeveless dress, who would wrap the sweater around herself for the rest of the way. Those were the only clothes they owned.
"I try to take care of the girls as best I can," Perfecta explained to me in Spanish. "They are good. They don't complain."2
Hours later, safely back in my plush lakefront highrise with an inspiring view of Chicago's wealthiest neighborhoods, I felt staggered by the contrast. If there is a God, why would kind and decent people like Perfecta and her grandchildren be cold and hungry in the midst of one of the greatest cities in the world? Day after day as I conducted research for my series, I encountered people in circumstances that were similar or even worse. My response was to settle deeper into my atheism.
Hardships, suffering, heartbreak, man's inhumanity to man-those were my daily diet as a journalist. This wasn't looking at magazine photos from faraway places; this was the grit and pain of life, up close and personal.
I've looked into the eyes of a young mother who had just been told that her only daughter had been molested, mutilated, and murdered. I've listened to courtroom testimony describing gruesome horrors that had been perpetrated against innocent victims. I've visited noisy and chaotic prisons, the trash heaps of society; low-budget nursing homes where the elderly languish after being abandoned by their loved ones; pediatric hospital wards where emaciated children fight vainly against the inexorable advance of cancer; and crime-addled inner cities where drug trafficking and drive-by shootings are all too common.
But nothing shocked me as much as my visit to the slums of Bombay, India. Lining both sides of the noisy, filthy, congested streets, as far as the eye could see, were small cardboard and burlap shanties, situated right next to the road where buses and cars would spew their exhaust and soot. Naked children played in the open sewage ditches that coursed through the area. People with missing limbs or bodies contorted by deformities sat passively in the dirt. Insects buzzed everywhere. It was a horrific scene, a place where, one taxi driver told me, people are born on the sidewalk, live their entire lives on the sidewalk, and die a premature death on the sidewalk.
Then I came face-to-face with a ten-year-old boy, about the same age as my son Kyle at the time. The Indian child was scrawny and malnourished, his hair filthy and matted. One eye was diseased and half closed; the other stared vacantly. Blood oozed from scabs on his face. He extended his hand and mumbled something in Hindi, apparently begging for coins. But his voice was a dull, lifeless monotone, as if he didn't expect any response. As if he had been drained of all hope.
Where was God in that festering hellhole? If he had the power to instantly heal that youngster, why did he turn his back? If he loved these people, why didn't he show it by rescuing them? Is this, I wondered, the real reason: because the very presence of such awful, heartwrenching suffering actually disproves the existence of a good and loving Father?
Everyone has encountered pain and sorrow. Heart disease claimed my father when he should have had many years left to see his grandchildren grow up. I kept a vigil at a neonatal intensive care unit as my newborn daughter battled a mysterious illness that both threatened her life and baffled her doctors. I've rushed to the hospital after the anguished call of a friend whose daughter had been hit by a drunk driver, and I was holding their hands at the moment life slipped away from her. I've had to break the news to a friend's two small children that their mother had committed suicide. I've seen childhood buddies succumb to cancer, to Lou Gehrig's disease, to heart ailments, to car accidents. I've seen Alzheimer's ravage the mind of a loved one. I'm sure you could tell similar stories of personal pain.
We recently emerged from a century unprecedented in its cruelty and inhumanity, where victims of tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse-tung are numbered in the tens of millions. The vastness of the cruelty numbs our minds, but then occasionally we come across a story that personalizes the horror and makes us shudder anew.
Like the account I was reading recently of an Italian journalist during World War II who was visiting a smiling Ante Pavelic, the pro-Nazi leader of Croatia. Pavelic proudly showed him a basket of what looked like oysters. It was, he said, a gift from his troops-forty pounds of human eyes. A small memento from their slaughter of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies.3
We read stories like that-horrible evils like the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocide of Rwanda, and the torture chambers of South America-and we can't help but wonder: Where is God? We watch television coverage of earthquakes and hurricanes in which thousands perish, and we wonder: Why didn't God stop it? We read the statistic that one thousand million people in the world lack the basic necessities of life, and we wonder: Why doesn't God care? We may suffer ourselves with persistent pain or aching loss or seemingly hopeless circumstances, and we wonder: Why doesn't God help? If he is loving and if he is all-powerful and if he is good, then surely all of this suffering should not exist. And yet it does.
What's worse, it's often the innocent who are victimized. "If only villains got broken backs or cancers, if only cheaters and crooks got Parkinson's disease, we should see a sort of celestial justice in the universe," wrote agnostic-turned-Christian Sheldon Vanauken.
But, as it is, a sweet-tempered child lies dying of a brain tumor, a happy young wife sees her husband and child killed before her eyes by a drunken driver; and ... we soundlessly scream at the stars, "Why? Why?" A mention of Godof God's will-doesn't help a bit. How could a good God, a loving God, do that? How could he even let it happen? And no answer comes from the indifferent stars.4
Christian author Philip Yancey begins his celebrated book on suffering with a chapter appropriately titled, "A Problem That Won't Go Away."5 This is not just an intellectual issue to be debated in sterile academic arenas; it's an intensely personal matter that can tie our emotions into knots and leave us with spiritual vertigo-disoriented, frightened, and angry. One writer referred to the problem of pain as "the question mark turned like a fishhook in the human heart."6 In fact, this is the single biggest obstacle for spiritual seekers. I commissioned George Barna, the public opinion pollster, to conduct a national survey in which he asked a scientifically selected cross-section of adults: "If you could ask God only one question and you knew he would give you an answer, what would you ask?" The top response, offered by 17 percent of those who said they had a question, was: "Why is there pain and suffering in the world?"7
Charles Templeton also demanded an answer to that question. His retreat from faith began with that Life magazine photo of the African mother holding her child who had died because of a simple lack of rain. In his book denouncing Christianity, Templeton recounts a litany of tragedies from ancient and modern history, and then declares:
"A loving God" could not possibly be the author of the horrors we have been describing-horrors that continue every day, have continued since time began, and will continue as long as life exists. It is an inconceivable tale of suffering and death, and because the tale is fact-is, in truth, the history of the world-it is obvious that there cannot be a loving God."8
Cannot? Does the presence of suffering necessarily mean the absence of God? Is this obstacle to faith insurmountable? To believe wholeheartedly in a loving and omnipotent Father, do I have to paper over the reality of evil and pain around me? As a journalist, that was simply not an option. I had to account for all the facts, for all the evidence, minimizing nothing.
I was discussing these issues with Leslie at a sensitive time in her life. Her uncle had just died, and her aunt had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and terminal cancer. Rocked by that turbulence, Leslie was wary of anyone who might try to give easy answers.
"If someone thinks he can wrap everything up in a neat little package and put a fancy theological bow on it," she cautioned, "go somewhere else."
I knew she was right. That's why I placed a call to Boston College and asked to make an appointment with the author of Making Sense Out of Suffering-a book whose title summed up exactly what I was seeking to do.
THE FIRST INTERVIEW: PETER JOHN KREEPT, PH.D.
I like to refer to Peter Kreeft as "the un-philosopher." Not that he isn't a philosopher; in fact, he's a first-rate philosophical thinker, with a doctorate from Fordham University, postgraduate study at Yale University, and thirtyeight years of experience as a philosophy professor at Villanova University and (since 1965) Boston College. He has taught such courses as metaphysics, ethics, mysticism, sexuality, and Oriental, Greek, medieval, and contemporary philosophy, earning such honors as the Woodrow Wilson and Yale-Sterling fellowships.
Still, if you were to conjure up a mental image of a stereotypical philosopher, Kreeft would probably not come to mind. Unfairly or not, philosophers are generally imagined to be a bit boring, speaking in vague and convoluted sentences, residing in the cloistered ivory towers of academia, and being serious to the point of dour.
In contrast, Kreeft gives real-world answers in an engaging and even entertaining way; communicates crisply, often with a memorable twist of a phrase; wears a bemused grin and can't restrain himself from cracking jokes about even the most sacrosanct subject; and, although he's sixty-two years old, can frequently be found at any given beach pursuing his hobby of surfing. (In a forthcoming book, one of his chapter titles is "I Surf, Therefore I Am.")
Kreeft, a Catholic also widely read by Protestants, has written more than forty books, including Love is Stronger than Death, Heaven:the Heart's Deepest Longing, Prayer:the Great Conversation, A Refutation of Moral Relativism, and Handbook of Christian Apologetics (with Ronald K. Tacelli). His whimsical imagination is especially evident in Between Heaven and Hell, which envisions C. S. Lewis, John I? Kennedy, and Aldous Huxley, after death, arguing about Christ, and Socrates Meets Jesus, in which the ancient thinker becomes a Christian at Harvard Divinity School.
I encountered Kreeft's offbeat sense of humor even before I walked into his office. While the other sixteen office doors on his drab and dimly lit corridor were undefaced, Kreeft's was festooned with Doonesbury and Dilbert cartoons and other tongue-in-cheek mementos-a drawing of a bull with a slash through it, a photo of Albert Einstein playfully sticking out his tongue, and a cartoon in which Satan greets people in hell by saying: "You'll find that there's no right or wrong here-just what works for you."
What drew me to Kreeft was his insightful book about suffering, in which he skillfully weaves a journey of discovery through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; through Augustine, Kierkegaard, and Dostoyevski; through Star Trek, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Hamlet; and through Moses, Job, and Jeremiah. All along the way, there are clues that eventually, ultimately, finally, converge on Jesus and the tears of God.
I arrived early and waited for Kreeft in the hallway. He soon arrived fresh from a philosophical conclave that was being held elsewhere in Boston. His brown tweed jacket, thick glasses, and neatly combed dark gray hair gave him a fatherly appearance. He sat behind his desk (under a sign that said, "No Dumping"), and we started by casually chatting about his beloved Boston Red Sox-an appropriate subject given our topic of suffering.
But then I turned a corner. There was no other approach than to hit Kreeft head-on with Templeton's blunt objections to Christianity, embodied by that Life magazine photo of an anguished mother clutching her dead infant in drought-ravaged Africa.
Confronting Kreeft with the same emotional intensity that Templeton had displayed to me, I described the photo and then quoted the former evangelist word for word:
I thought, "Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?" How could a loving God do this to that woman? Who runs the rain? I don't; you don't. He does-or that's what I thought. But when f saw that photograph, I immediately knew it is not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God. There was no way. Who else but a fiend could destroy a baby and virtually kill its mother with agony-when all that was needed was rain?... And then I began ... considering the plagues that sweep across parts of the planet and indiscriminately kill ... and it just became crystal clear to me that it is not possible for an intelligent person to believe that there is a deity who loves.
I looked up from my notes. The professor's eyes were riveted on me. Facing him squarely, leaning forward in my chair for emphasis, I said in a rather accusatory tone: "Dr. Kreeft, you're an intelligent person and you believe in a deity who loves. How in the world would you respond to Templeton?"
Kreeft cleared his throat. "First of all," he began, "I'd focus on his words, 'it is not possible.' Even David Hume, one of history's most famous skeptics, said it's just barely possible that God exists. That's at least a somewhat reasonable position-to say that there's at least a small possibility. But to say there's no possibility that a loving God who knows far more than we do, including about our future, could possibly tolerate such evil as Templeton sees in Africa-well, that strikes me as intellectually arrogant."
That took me aback. "Really?" I asked. "How so?"
"How can a mere finite human be sure that infinite wisdom would not tolerate certain short-range evils in order for more long-range goods that we couldn't foresee?" he asked.
I could see his point but needed an example. "Elaborate a bit," I prodded.
Kreeft thought for a moment. "Look at it this way," he said. "Would you agree that the difference between us and God is greater than the difference between us and, say, a bear?" I nodded.
"Okay, then, imagine a bear in a trap and a hunter who, out of sympathy, wants to liberate him. He tries to win the bear's confidence, but he can't do it, so he has to shoot the bear full of drugs. The bear, however, thinks this is an attack and that the hunter is trying to kill him. He doesn't realize that this is being done out of compassion.
"Then, in order to get the bear out of the trap, the hunter has to push him further into the trap to release the tension on the spring. If the bear were semiconscious at that point, he would be even more convinced that the hunter was his enemy who was out to cause him suffering and pain. But the bear would be wrong. He reaches this incorrect conclusion because he's not a human being."
Kreeft let the illustration soak in for a moment. "Now," he concluded, "how can anyone be certain that's not an analogy between us and God? I believe God does the same to us sometimes, and we can't comprehend why he does it any more than the bear can understand the motivations of the hunter. As the bear could have trusted the hunter, so we can trust God."
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