“I can’t believe yet another good friend’s lost her son,” wrote my sister Amanda on a Whatsapp. “How can life be so cruel?” My other sister, Claire, agreed. She’s lost several of her own friends, some from cancer, another from a bizarre hit-and-run road accident.
All this has happened in the year we said goodbye to our dear mum, who endured much suffering and humiliation during her final months, sometimes seeming to echo Jesus’ words on the Cross, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?”
To our good friend Professor Richard Dawkins, this litany of misery would come as no surprise. He writes, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” (quoted from his book ‘River out of Eden’, 1995).
The problem of suffering presents a major obstacle to many people in coming to faith. How could a loving God possibly permit the evil we see around us, particularly if he’s s’posed to be omnipotent? The classic Christian answer, that he gave humankind Free Will and we abused it, certainly accounts for a great deal of the world’s ills as we have seen in Ukraine. But what about the carnage of cancer, the degenerative diseases, the Asian tsunamis? I don’t buy the idea that these result from the ‘fall of man’. In my view, so many of the painful, violent processes we observe in nature have been a necessary part of shaping the world we live in, indeed our universe.
This year, during our preparation for so-called Good Friday, I’ve found myself ‘observing’ Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here he desperately appeals to God, pleading, “Father, if you are willing, please take away this cup of horror from me.” So great is his torment that Jesus sweats ‘great drops of blood’, a condition known as hematohidrosis which occurs when a person is under extreme pressure. In effect he’s asking, “Father, please, please, can’t you find another way?” Finally, he submits, saying, “but I want your will, not mine.” (Luke 22 vs 42-43). There was no other way to deal with the mountain of humankind’s wrongdoing and wickedness.
I believe God was fully aware of the suffering that would be unleashed in creating our universe. I believe he’s cried many, many tears, because his heart is to love (see note). But he had two choices. He could create a universe of joys and sorrows, of dramatic, disruptive processes, sometimes gentle, at other times violent. One in which creatures could choose to return his love and follow him, but also choose to reject him. Or he could choose not to create. Creating a universe without pain wasn’t an option. There was no other way.
Why did Jesus go to the cross? The writer to the Hebrews (12 vs 2) explains that ‘For he himself endured a cross and thought nothing of its shame because of the joy he knew would follow his suffering; and he is now seated at the right hand of God’s throne.’ Jesus anticipated his own resurrection, and – along with it – that of God’s people. The prize was winning the battle against evil so that people like you and I could become God’s children and join him in a busy, creative heaven.
Why did God go ahead with this creation characterised by so much suffering? I’m convinced that part of the answer is the same as for why Jesus died. In Mum’s last years, we talked about our Christian hope; of God’s transformation of our present creation that has been groaning with pain, into a new Heaven and Earth. In the middle of her trials, Mum found this hard to grasp, but at her funeral it was wonderful to hear,
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21 vs 3-4)
It’s impossible for us to fully grasp what it’ll mean to God to see his creation come to fulfilment. St Paul visualised it like this:
“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived — the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2 vs 9). He’s getting excited about welcoming us to our new home. Yes, it’ll be worth all the pain and suffering that he, and we, have endured!