Way back in my first year as a philosophy student at the University of Lethbridge, I took a class which dealt with the various philosophical responses the problem of evil (free will defense, best-of-all-possible-worlds defense, process-theology defense, etc). The class was taught by a flamboyant, bombastic, atheistic Jew who claimed, nonetheless, to be angry at God and to be determined to personally offend each one of us and force us to abandon our simplistic understandings of important questions like the problem of evil. I think he liked the idea of taking the first class to try to terrify and overwhelm a bunch of 18-19 year old kids (many of whom were “religious” in some form or another) who had never seriously thought about some of these questions. Maybe it made him feel important or smart or irreverent or superior. I don’t know. But at least initially, I wasn’t very impressed. It seemed like a rather adolescent and petulant display and I wasn’t much looking forward to the class.
But a few days into the course, the professor said something about the problem of evil that I have never forgotten. He said that at the end of the day nobody gives a damn which of these theories logically coheres the best or is the most intellectually satisfying. The only thing that matters is whether or not our theodicy—our explanation/reconciliation of the existence of God and the nature of suffering—is “pastorally adequate.” “When you are faced with a real live human being for whom evil and suffering are no longer abstract concepts but existential realities, what will you say? If what you believe about the nature of evil and suffering can’t be offered to someone who really is suffering, your theodicy is worthless.”
That one statement began to change my opinion of this professor. I began to see a man who, beneath the outward abrasiveness and tough exterior, was deeply sensitive and cared immensely about the problem of evil and how it affects real human beings. I began to develop a bit of a relationship with him. In fact, he ended up supervising my undergraduate thesis on evil and the nature of God’s foreknowledge (of all the atheist philosophers on campus, he was the only one even interested in the philosophy of religion and willing to take me on). He even ended up writing my letter of recommendation to Regent College! I ended up taking 2-3 more (fairly forgettable) classes with him over my time there but that one statement about the importance of a “pastorally adequate” theodicy will always stay with me.
It stands out even more now that I find myself in a position where people actually come to me looking for answers about suffering and evil (I am no longer granted the luxury of simply writing about evil!). Just last week I was speaking with someone who lost a toddler to a rare disease and an adult child to suicide. This person has been angry with God for a good part of their life. They have come to believe in and trust God later in life but massive questions remain. “I still don’t understand why God had to take my children.” Me either. What is the “pastorally adequate” response for someone like this?
Over the last few months I have also been following (from a distance) a friend from my childhood’s battle with cancer. He is blogging/journaling about it as he goes through it. His entries are raw and painful to read. He expresses the full range of emotions, from hope and optimism to rage and despair to fear and confusion. His prognosis isn’t great. There is hope, but as is so often the case, it is a precarious hope that seems to hang by a thread. I had a brief exchange via email with him during the summer and struggled mightily with what to say. Words seemed like such a meager and useless offering in the face of what he is going through. I told him that his courage was inspiring. That I would pray for him. It didn’t seem like much to offer.
One of the central arguments of my masters thesis was that the problem of suffering and evil is central to every explanation of the world; the problem of evil is what makes worldviews necessary. If everything went the way we wanted it to all the time, it’s difficult to imagine people having a need to explain things. All worldviews are theodicies, at some level. They all address the problem of what’s wrong with the world and what the solution is. They all place suffering in some kind conceptual/existential structures that allow us to make our way through our days and to go on in the world with a sense of hope.
But it must also be said that suffering is the feature of human existence that all worldviews stumble upon. There is no adequate “rational” response in the face of someone who is truly suffering or has truly suffered. There is no “explanation” to make things better, no theory or system in which suffering and evil can be placed so that it all of sudden “makes sense.”
The “Christian theodicy,” to the extent that such a designation is proper or even helpful, is that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the means by which the world is made new. It makes forgiveness for the bad things we have done and healing for the bad things that are done to us possible. It promises that new life and hope will emerge out of the wreckage of evil and sin and suffering that we see around us. It promises a redeemed creation where every tear will be wiped away and God himself will be among his people. It promises that “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:1-4).
But not yet. And while we wait—while we groan and those we love groan and all of creation groans—it seems to me that the only “pastorally adequate” theodicy that can be offered in the face of real suffering is that we are not forgotten by God. That he knows that we are but dust, that he understands our pain because he, too, has suffered. That somehow suffering is part of the way in which God makes all things new.