David A. Skeel, Jr., a widely respected legal scholar, is author of the recent book True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World. It makes the case for the explanatory power of Christianity, and does so in a manner that’s intelligent, honest, appropriately modest and respectful of opposing points of view.
The book includes chapters on the origins of conscience and our compulsion to devise ideas about our place in the universe, on beauty and the arts, justice, life and afterlife, and suffering. It’s the last topic, suffering, I want to focus on.
Mr. Skeel admits that the problem of evil and suffering presents the most difficult dilemma for Christianity. Philosophers as far back as David Hume, through his fictional character Philo in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, argued that suffering and evil refute the belief in all-powerful, all-knowing, all good deity. (“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”)
As Mr. Skeel points out, the existence of suffering is puzzling even for materialists, who view certain kinds of afflictions and ordeals to be morally wrong even though they have no philosophical basis for doing so. Yet Skeel also concedes, “In the end, I do not think Christianity can give a complete explanation for why there is suffering and evil in the world.” (He invokes God’s dealing with Job as evidence to support his thesis.)
That strikes me as quite right, as does his warning against trying to glean the meaning of awful events. We simply cannot know the reason for pandemics, holocausts and natural disasters; for a cancer diagnosis, a devastating injury, the death of a child. “The world is more disorderly and more cripplingly unpredictable than we like to believe,” Skeel writes.
The proper way for people of the Christian faith to approach the question may be to accept that God doesn’t ordain suffering but He does allow it and can even produce good from it; that God, rather than being unacquainted with suffering and grief, experienced them (through the Crucifixion) to an unfathomable degree; and that ultimately all things are made right by the Creator, that what we experience now will be seen one day as momentary afflictions set against an eternal weight of glory.
This view of things hardly answers every question. Nor does it directly address the arguments raised by Hume and others. It does, however, offer a different way to think about suffering – and in so doing, avoids some of the glib answers and the tendency to “flatten out complexity” in order to defend the faith. In my experience, those who have this angle of vision on life are the individuals most characterized by grace and joy, even in the face of affliction. When you see it up close, it’s quite a thing to behold.
A final point is important. Faith itself, while not contra-reason, isn’t the same thing as reason. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For someone of my disposition, who tends to prize reason and empirical evidence – who wants answers to questions and resolution to mysteries — the fit isn’t a natural one. Yet I discovered some time ago that the Incarnation is not a series of logical proofs; and that the season of Advent anticipates the arrival of a person, not a philosophy, not even a theology. We’re part of an unfolding story, of “a project going somewhere,” in the words of the scholar N.T. Wright. Within that story are themes, characters, plots and sub-plots, which at any given moment in time can seem random and without purpose but which eventually fit together. Even the heartaches. Even our wounds. Even His wounds.
Peter Wehner is former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush. Wehner served also in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, serves now as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and coauthor with Michael Gerson of City of Man and with Arthur Brooks of Wealth and Justice.