Apologetics: Facing Suffering
John Gillespie is Senior Teaching Fellow with the C.S. Lewis Institute Belfast and one of the team teaching on Reality 316, an Apologetics and Worldview Course run by Portrush Presbyterian Church. Emeritus Professor of French teaching at Ulster University, he researches and publishes on Christianity and Modern Thought.
God and Suffering
On the RTE show The Meaning of Life a few years ago, when asked by Gay Byrne what he would say to God at the Pearly Gates, Stephen Fry replied:
‘Bone cancer in children. What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault! It's not right, it's utterly, utterly evil! Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That's what I would say.’
People were shocked by his emotional response. But they really shouldn’t have been. Many find it hard to understand why children suffer, why we see mothers with young families dying of cancer, why people die ‘before their time’. Even C.S. Lewis, so strong in his faith, wrestled with doubt and depression after the death from cancer of his wife Joy Davidman, a struggle outlined so helpfully in A Grief Observed.
The problems of suffering and evil are major obstacles to belief in God for many, and the most difficult problem that Christians and the Christian church have faced over the centuries. The problem was posed most pointedly by David Hume, the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment thinker:
‘Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’
Suffering: The Secular Problem
Of course suffering is only a problem if you believe in God. If you don’t, although it will be a difficult practical problem, there can be no expectation that the universe or the world have been personally designed for your comfort and happiness. For the modern man believes the world is merely physical phenomena arising out of random, mindless evolution. As Richard Dawkins puts it in River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life:
"‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation… 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 nor reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.’