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.

Why would a Good God allow Suffering and Death?

I had used the story of Pinocchio, his destiny hanging in the balance, to help us see the stark and eternal contrasts between the two roads that opened up before us with our forebears’ rebellion in the Garden. And God, with his veiled foreshadowing of the coming Redeemer at the dawn of history, wanted us to see and choose this path of redemption that He would carve out for us. But there was a more immediate problem that God had to deal with.

Adam and Original Sin

In his Declaration of Independence something in Adam changed. As I went over in Corrupted (Part 2) … Missing our Target, immediately after his defiance he tried to cover up. He would not accept responsibility. What Adam started we continue because we have inherited that disposition. Some misunderstand the Biblical account to infer that we are blamed for the rebellion of Adam. In fact, the only one blamed is Adam (ex. Romans 5:14) but we do live in the consequences of that rebellion. We can think of it genetically. As our parents have had genetic mutations, we receive them and, in turn, pass them on to our offspring.  Similarly, through characteristics passed from parent to offspring we have inherited this mutinous nature of Adam and thus innately, sometimes unconsciously, but still willfully, we continue the uprising that he started.  This is what is meant by Original Sin.

Adam – Head of Human Race

We can also think of it in terms of headship. The following real situation helped me start to better understand what the Bible means when it says we are ‘in’ Adam. In recent times several Canadian provinces have been involved in high-stakes negotiations with aboriginal groups over their logging, fishing and hunting rights. At the heart of the negotiations lies the fact that several hundred years ago British generals signed treaties as British representatives on behalf of the Queen and British Empire with the then-living aboriginal leaders over the rights that the British Empire would grant them. In short, treaties were signed back then and the parties are now negotiating over the implications. What is interesting is that no one today had any say in the treaties signed back then, yet all parties today are bound by them. It is no use to protest, “But I did not sign the treaty”. In fact, there was not even a Canada (or provinces) back then, yet the Canadian government still has legal and moral responsibility to uphold (though they may not like it, and do find it economically inconvenient) what the treaties stipulated. In a very real sense, the British general of yesteryear was representing every Canadian who would ever live. These men, whoever they were, created a reality for Canadians living today that we must abide by. In this sense we can say that Canadians living today were ‘in’ those generals who signed back then and are thus bound by the treaties they created. These generals form a headship for Canadians today with respect to these ancient signed treaties.

Similarly, when a nation goes to war with another, it takes only one, the Head of State, to declare war and all citizens of that state, whether they like it or not, are then implicated. When US President Roosevelt declared war on Germany and Japan in World War II, all Americans were at war with Germany and Japan. American citizens were ‘in’ Roosevelt and what the Head of State put in effect applied to all. In similar ways, the Bible tells us that we are ‘in’ Adam. He is Head of Man and the Declaration of Independence from God that he started implicates us all.

God’s Obliges

And God, true to the essence of freedom of choice, respected Adam’s decision. His love for Adam was not some sort of co-dependent ‘need’ for him. But God, in his overall plan to redeem us, which He declared in that veiled manner using the promise of the coming offspring, also set things up so we could better ‘see’ the destiny toward which our Independence was taking us. Adam (and descendants) needed to understand, in a real sense needed to feel, the consequences of their rebellion and the start of their own pseudo-jurisdiction. As Adam was corrupted by his rebellion, God cursed the world he lived in so he could get a taste of what life apart from God would be like. As God said to Adam:

“…the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

Lives of people would now be marked by frustration, struggle and finally death. But this was not done out of spite. We wanted a Divorce and God is obliging with an initial Separation. The Divorce will come and it will be Permanent (more on that later), but for now He is helping us feel the consequences of our Separation. When a rebellious teenager wants to move out of the parents’ house, the parents may oblige, but to help them see consequences they do not pay the teen’s newly acquired rent. The teen needs to experience the full implications of their new autonomy. Then they may realize it was not so bad at home after all – and may decide to come back. In a similar way, since we chose independence from God, and He is in actual fact the source of life, we needed to get a taste of what death – being apart from God – would be like. God was setting the stage so we will perhaps come to our senses, lay down our arms, and re-enter the new covenant with Him.

In other words, God partly obliged our desire for autonomy by bringing about frustration into our world that would give us a taste or feel for what existence Divorced from Him would ultimately entail. Often referred to as the Curse, it is explained Biblically in the following way:

19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 19-23)

It states that ‘the creation was subjected to frustation’, i.e., it was imposed on it by God. This ‘frustration’ is its universal ‘bondage to decay’ – mutation, disease, death (and extinction) in the biological world, and increasing entropy or disorder in the physical world. Things run downhill, wear out, rust out, break down – both the creation and we ourselves are ‘groaning’ in this state. Notice though the causal connection. Verse 19 says the creation is waiting for the ‘sons of God to be revealed’ for (v.20) it had been frustrated. Therefore the ‘sons of God’ must have been key to the original imposing of the frustration. When mankind became corrupt God placed a frustration on the world – a Curse. The revealing of redeemed humanity, now the ‘sons of God’, like the return of Pinocchio to Jepetto, will herald the release from this frustration.

But why was that done? This Curse would include all the hellish things of our current existence, chief among them: aging, sickness, pain, and death. And here we come to some diametrically opposing views. Many today, including well-known skeptics use this as a primary argument against God. Bart Ehrman, arch New Testament critic, succinctly expresses this view in his statement:

“There came a time when I left the faith … because I could no longer reconcile my faith in God with the state of the world that I saw all around me … there is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control”  Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted. 2010. p. 17

Why would God arrange things in such a way as to give Ehrman and others such ammunition, and indeed such unspeakable wretchedness in the lives of so many? My experience living in Africa and then returning to Canada gave me a glimpse into why He may have done this … in my next post.