June 05, 2017

Has God forgotten us in London and Manchester?

The atrocities in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge are the latest examples in a list of heartache that spans human history.  At times like these it feels reasonable to ask if God has left us, or was he ever even there?

As I cycled home last night I didn’t make much of the ambulances and police cars. It was only when I docked my Boris bike and saw my phone aglow that I realised where they were going. I had crossed at Blackfriars Bridge, if I’d chosen a different route, I wouldn’t have needed my phone to enlighten me.

The atrocities in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge, (never mind Kabul or the other attacks around the world) are the latest examples in a list of heartache that spans human history.  At times like these it feels reasonable to ask if God has left us, or was he ever even there?

After all, how can a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow evil to ravage our planet?

Arguments on this question rage around philosophy departments. The ‘problem of suffering’, as it is academically known, is a debate about whether it is logically defensible for a perfect God to exist alongside such debilitating evil. Alvin Plantinga’s argument has convinced many sceptics. Put simply, he argues that it’s logically possible for God to create humans with free will despite knowing they will use it to cause others to suffer [1].

Problem solved? No. Suffering is the problem! Suffering hurts us all deeply, particularly when it involves innocent children. No matter what beliefs you cling on to, no argument can shield us from the barbarity we have experienced. Believer, atheist, or agnostic, suffering hurts.

The problem with the ‘problem of suffering’ is that suffering is not an abstract issue. It’s not a philosophical problem to be solved or an argument to be won. Suffering is common to all humanity, everyone under the sun. Most people couldn’t give two hoots about philosophy but we rightly care a great deal when witnessing barbarity or the suffering of a loved one.

I’m a Christian but I’m not writing this article to win an argument, quite the opposite. I’m writing it because I want to be honest with the struggles these evil events bring to my faith. I mentioned the problems for people like me, who believe in God. Any honest Christian will tell you how they wrestle and struggle to reconcile their belief in God with the evil we see. But I find the problems for those who don’t believe in God to be just as thorny and unpalatable. Without a just God, evil can win. Evil does win. Salman Abedi goes unpunished. Wrongs aren’t righted. There is also no ultimate meaning or purpose behind suffering and pain.

Please hear me correctly; these aren’t arguments that prove atheism is wrong. It is the other side of the coin because, whatever our beliefs, we have to face the cold harsh reality of suffering. Nothing can protect us from it. The real question we need to wrestle with is how can we cope in the face of so much pain?

I’ve found two things that keep me going. Firstly, I try to understand what happened in Manchester and London in light of the fact that I believe in and follow a God who suffered. Jesus suffered a horrific death and experienced the sorrow of the loss of loved ones. This is the God I follow, a God familiar with our suffering and reality, a God who is able to understand humanity in its rawest sense because he experienced it when he walked the planet.

My faith allows me, no, it encourages me, to cry out against God when I see injustice. Over a third of the songs and poems in the Bible’s book of songs (the Psalms) are lament: a complaint or a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Bringing complaint and anger to God are a healthy part of a Christian’s life. The Bible isn’t a book of wishy-washy happy-clappy verses thanking God for being ‘nice’. There is space for weeping, crying and wrestling with God when we see evil we can’t comprehend. In fact, there is no other right response.

Secondly, I also believe in a God who is perfectly just and will right every wrong. It’s of minimal comfort right now, but I cope by trusting that ultimately God will ensure that justice will prevail over evil and suffering. Not only that, I believe that God will remake and renew the world, the heavens and our bodies so that there is no more suffering, death or pain. Things will be how we all feel they are meant to be. No longer will I have to lament and cry out to God because death will be defeated, evil eradicated and suffering will fall out of our vocabulary.

But I don’t believe it simply because God promised it. I believe it because of Jesus’ resurrection. The historical accounts lead me to conclude that Jesus is the only human to rise from death. I see the uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection as the first sign of God’s promise to renew our broken world. This promise is where I pin my hope and faith and where I find confidence and solace in the midst of suffering. A promise that one day the world and humanity will be whole and united by a loving God who is beyond our wildest imagination.

This hope doesn’t stop the reality we face today but I honestly don’t know how I’d cope without it. It isn’t a hope for moral-do-gooders who have the answers to suffering. It’s a hope that is open to all. Critics often say that faith is a crutch, but in such a wounded world, it’s the only thing I have left to lean on.

[1] Plantinga, Alvin (1977) God, Freedom, and Evil

Ben Palmer

Ben Palmer
Ben works for a mentoring charity in London, but boasts a CV that includes a year of living as a monk.

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