Why would God allow suffering and death? Part 2

In my last post I posed the question as to why God would impose the Curse on the world. The hellish misery and death is one of the primary arguments used today to contend that there is no Good God. It was my experience in Africa contrasted to Canada that gave me a glimpse into why He may have done so.

Living in Africa

After high school, I took a year to live in Cameroon, Africa, where I worked in a machete crew that would hack its way through the steamy and dense jungle in straight lines to measure forest inventory. I was one of the crew that wielded a machete to clear a path. It was excruciatingly back-breaking work in the hot and humid jungle – wacking the vines, going straight through huge walls of thorn bushes, up steep slopes. We wore thick rubber boots (protection against snakes) and when we were done the day’s work we were exhausted.

The co-workers on the inventory team were simple and poor blue-collar men, on low wages trying to provide for their families. We became friends and I would regularly visit them after work. They lived in tin roofed, two-room huts/shacks by the road with no plumbing of any kind. I would sit with them on their mud floors, hearing the rats scampering in the darker recesses of the huts, eating their food. At times it was lizard tail, other times dried rodent of some sort, and bananas and other fruit growing around them. They shared their huts with a large family, there were lots of kids, often sick with something, and of course the elderly. The village ‘idiot’ was there. He was insane and would walk around naked, babbling some random ‘thoughts’. They could not put these kinds of folks away in care like we can here.

At one point we started to investigate the Bible together. It was at their suggestion after they had seen me reading my pocket Testament on one of our breaks deep in the jungle. We were an unlikely grouping; an upper middle-class, educated, white, Swedish-Anglo 18 year-old exploring the gospel with middle-aged, married, ‘simple’, Bassa tribe, African men in their huts. In the context of this study that went on through the year they surprised me. Though uneducated they astutely wondered why, if God was so good (as the Bible says He is), was the world around them so difficult, life so hard, things so unfair, health so fickle, the poor (themselves!) always exploited, work so tiring etc. They wrestled through the same issues, asking the same questions that Ehrman and the rest of us educated in the West ask. But what I noticed about my machete-crew friends contrasted so sharply with my experience in Canada at university.

Compared to Canada

After my year in Africa, I went to Canada for university studies. Here I was among my own: western, rich, educated, young, intelligent, healthy – by any global standard, and certainly my machete-crew friends. And once again there were some discussions regarding the gospel on the go, in the cafeteria, or the dorm, as part of university life. And the same questions were raised. But it was different now. In Africa, my friends were themselves in the experience they were asking about, and they asked from a posture of humility, feeling the personal relevance of the gospel solution to their situation and willing to wait patiently for it. They were, in a phrase, poor in spirit.

In Canada, my friends had never ever personally experienced one day of real hunger through their entire lives; they had not had real and personal brushes with death because the medical system rescued them long before anything got serious; they had never experienced one day of back-breaking labour in such heat; they had lots of gadgets to amuse themselves with.  So they asked the same questions with a totally different attitude. They were defiant and taunting, and would use these questions, not to see if there were answers, but to presume that there was no answer and to keep the gospel at arms-length. They were, to borrow a phrase, not poor in spirit. Thus they could dismiss the whole thing and continue living their lives the way they wanted to. The intellectual questions were the same, but the difference in attitude between Africa and Canada was so palpable to me – because here in Canada my friends felt very little personal need.

I would go to the university cafeteria (offering various hot meals, drinks and desserts available to us in all-you-can eat quantities, three times a day, seven days a week) with my friends amidst cursing of the poor food quality, grumbling that there was a wait in the line, and complaining when the ice cream ran out that day. The conversation revolved around which girl, amongst those we could see, would we ‘do’ and in what ‘position’, and if she was ‘worth’ it or not. The cursing would make sailors blush. Favorite events were the Roman Toga parties where everyone spent the night in drunkenness, debauchery and girl-swapping all night. Bootleg videos of a woman having sex with a horse; and a man with a rabbit – while killing it – made it around our dorm. I knew girls who were raped. Fires would be lit in the dorms for fun – so they could watch the firetrucks come in the middle of the night. Having piranhas as pets, so we could see hapless goldfish destroyed in a frenzy every week, made great sport. In one drunken party a guy fell out the 3rd floor window headfirst to his death on the pavement below; I awoke to see them mopping up the blood outside my window the next morning. The end of the year would be celebrated by busting doors and windows, and throwing TVs out the windows unto the ground below. “Yes indeed”, my friends would declare, shaking a fist at God, “He is unfair and unjust and has made a mess of the world”!

We may smile at the antics of university life and chide that most of us smarten up when we graduate and have the responsibility of a job, raising a family, paying a mortgage, and keeping our ‘Molson muscle’ belly from getting too big. And that is precisely the point. These things do smarten us up, but these are effects from the Frustration of the Curse. It is work responsibilities that the Curse has instituted to cause ‘sweat on our brow’ and ‘painful toil’. It is the heart-breaking and tiring process of raising children that comes from the Curse. It is aging that the Molson muscle represents – again from the Curse. It is the unavoidable and inevitable approaching of death that even keeps us moderately meek – again from the Curse. My friends in Africa were in touch with this all the time, and thus were open in some ways that my Canadian university friends were not. My friends in university could so mitigate the effects of the Curse for that period of their lives – thus their hearts remained hard.

Consider that the advances of technology and wealth that we in the West enjoy are only appreciated because they mitigate (temporarily) the brunt of the Curse from our experience. Medicine mitigates against sickness, cosmetics hide the effect of aging, scientific techniques supply us with an abundance and variety of food, technology has reduced the ‘painful’ aspect of work to the extent that we now are used to thinking in terms of ‘careers’ that can satisfy our desires, rather than provide for daily necessities. The motive for advancement in science and technology is never about gaining wisdom. We have the same motive that drove the magicians and alchemists of the Middle Ages (though with more success). We want to master Nature so that Nature’s sting on our lives is reduced. All my friends went to university so they could ‘get a good job’ – they were not interested in learning for learning’s sake – but with a good job they could enjoy all the benefits of a lessened Curse.

Now I am not against that, and I think our advancements are good. But they do not soften our hearts; it is the hard knocks of living in the Curse that do that – for me and for the others I have seen life’s sterner hand upon. I find it interesting that mostly in the West, amongst the rich and wealthy of the world, do we find this issue (of pain and misery in the world) advanced as an argument against the existence of God – the very ones who do not experience The Curse to the same intensity as our brothers across the globe and back in time do. The loosening of the grip of the Curse on our lives has hardened us.

And with that I get a faint glimmer of perhaps why God has brought about the Curse on the world in the first place. Without it we would never ever bother listening to hear God’s call no matter what. In imposing the Curse He faced the choice between having no people ever listen to him versus some listening and others calling Him evil. Personally, I am thankful he chose the latter option.

3 thoughts on “Why would God allow suffering and death? Part 2

  1. Wow! Great insight! I suffer a lot in life. I was praying to God asked why ? Many times. One day he answered me and said I wanted u to be more like me. God was not responsible for my abuse. My family was by there poor choices. God had foreknowledge so he turned my ashes of a childhood into a beautiful willing heart to help others in deep dark pain. And he also said if my life was great how to I understand anyone else’s life that wasn’t.

  2. Thanks Ragnar. Quite the jarring juxtaposition, that’s for sure.

    Despite the good storytelling, however, it still doesn’t seem to me like a very satisfactory answer. I bet your friends from the Bassa tribe would agree: it hardly makes sense that their suffering is supposed to draw them closer to a Creator-God who put that suffering there in the first place. And if all these comforts of the West play such a strong role in drawing people away from God, then why should He have allowed those comforts to arise? To put it another way: it is written that every good thing comes from God (James 1:17), yet we have things like healthcare which are both good and drawing people away from God. Is not God, then, drawing people away from Himself?

    And then of course, to reiterate a comment I made earlier: was it truly impossible for God to create free-willed humans that would listen to Him without first experiencing the Dark World?

    When you really love someone, I find it often feels necessary to find excuses for their shortcomings. I suspect that this phenomenon is in play here. The thing is, those excuses are sometimes only shallowly fleshed out before the excuse-maker accepts them.

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