Thursday, March 04, 2021

A Profound Apology

So I was supervising some young Christians, along with at least one unbeliever. They were viewing an apologetics video. It was one that had been professionally produced — you know, the kind that had enough money put into it to reasonably approximate Hollywood or TED Talk production values. Their local church had made it available, off that Christian video-streaming service that some churches seem to like.

The topic was “Why Does God Allow Suffering and Tragedy?”

What a great topic, I thought. Whether you’re a Christian or an unbeliever, that’s got to be something you’ve asked yourself, because you don’t live long in this world without running into some kind of suffering. If you’re fortunate, it’s small; but it’s astonishing how huge the things some children face can be.

In the audience was a girl who had no real “home”, but bounced consecutively between father and mother’s houses and communities. Another boy in the room had a parent in the late stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. And those were just a couple I knew. What secret sorrows I did not know, I could not say.

So the topic was relevant. And I was anticipating that a new Christian video, especially one in which a lot of money and time had clearly been invested, would offer something new and profound.

The Ol’ “Bait-and-Switch”

I’ve got to give the creators of the video credit for this: that they didn’t shy away from how serious the question can be. Their main case study was a young woman born with a terrible bone disease that had crippled her, put her in continual pain, and caused her to be subjected to a potentially endless series of surgeries. Plucky though she was, she was frank about how hard her life had been and how often she had struggled spiritually.

Their narrator was also someone who had a personal investment in the question. He spoke of his own battle with cancer and with aggressive chemotherapy. So there was some realism in the way they framed the question.

But the response of the video was disappointing. That suffering happens, the apologist freely admitted; then he moved on to the various consolations available to Christians, such as the reminder of the Fall, the frequent biblical acknowledgements that suffering is real and serious, the sympathy of Christ in our sufferings, and the eventual promise of release.

But nothing about why.

Missing the Point

Now, keep in mind that this was purported to be an apologetics video. Its professed purpose was either to explain to skeptics why suffering happens or to equip Christians to do the same, and yet it delivered no such thing. How comforting could it be to a non-Christian to know that the Fall he may not believe in happened, or that the God he doesn’t yet believe in is aware of it, or that the Savior he doesn’t know is sympathetic, or that while he may suffer like a dog today, at some future time God will wipe out all suffering? Do any of those things actually constitute an answer to the question in the video’s title?

Not much, I’m thinking. They had the right question, alright — the one that everyone wants to ask — but their evasions of the particulars and their collapse into Christianese left the audience cold. For that matter, it even left me cold.

Was There Another Way?

Sure, I agree with the facts presented. And as a Christian, sure, I believe in the Christian consolations. I don’t deny that quoting scripture is very valuable, even when addressing questions with unbelievers. But I felt cheated. And I understood very well if the attendant unbelievers felt likewise (they did, apparently). If the question was why, the answer ought to have been because ... well, something. Just become a Christian, and eventually it won’t matter was really no kind of answer.

And I know there are far better answers. C.S. Lewis had a great deal to say about suffering, both on the intellectual and personal levels. And philosopher Alvin Plantinga has done some really neat stuff. For that matter, I’ve spent a great deal of time puzzling over the issue myself; and so I feel quite certain the video could — and should — have done better. There are thoughtful explanations of why evil and suffering happen in this world; and here I don’t mean fatalistic resignation, or pie-in-the-sky optimism, or trite dismissals, but rather profound, balanced, humane, comprehensive and reasonable responses synthesizing the two central facts that we as Christians maintain about this — that God is good, and yet that evil and suffering are real.

But unless we believe that the only people who benefit from apologetics are those who are already Christians, then answers that only make sense to a Christian audience are not going to be sufficient. We’ve got to speak sense to unbelievers as well.

Christian Anti-Rationalism

Not everybody agrees. Some Christians have the idea that using reason to speak about God is contrary to faith. Others think that faith is some kind of “zap” God puts on some people and denies to others, so reasoning is useless — the person you’re speaking to might simply not have the “zap”. Both types of people think apologetics are a waste of time.

I don’t agree, of course.

Apollos powerfully refuted unbelieving Jews on the basis of the tradition they did accept. Thereby, he greatly encouraged the believers as well. Paul used arguments from polytheism and the language used by contemporary gnostics to preach the gospel and make key theological points. Both reasoned, even though the people to whom they were talking were unbelievers, skeptics … even violently opposed to the gospel. For the mind is a gift from God, and reason, when rightly practiced, is inevitably on his side. And speaking to unbelievers is far from useless; in fact, destroying the distorted reasons of unbelievers is a primary purpose of our gospel.

So I think we ought to do as God has instructed us, and speak with sound reasons to unbelievers. That’s what apologetics are all about.

Truth Wins

My years in the academy have taught me that this: that the truth of God is far more powerful than the ideas of man. On a level, fair, rational playing field, the word of God wins every battle. And there are people out there who are willing to give the gospel such a playing field: only they have been told that to do so they would have to become irrational. They would have to reject science, or logic, or common sense, they think. So unless they are exposed to right reason, they continue to think that.

I think we owe the Lord better. I think we owe him to do good apologetics — to use sound logic, true facts, honest procedures, solid evidence and clear expression to adorn the gospel of Christ. And I truly think those things are greatly in our favor, because as often as we do otherwise, we give excuse to skeptics to call us irrational, blind, dishonest or stupid. And that does a disservice to Christ.

But …

Insofar as we do engage in apologetics, I think we owe it to be truthful and direct. If we say we will tackle a question like “Why does God allow suffering and tragedy?” then I think we owe it to stay with that question. We ought not to slide away from it just because it’s difficult, and massage it into “How can we get by since suffering exists?” or something like that. It’s not the same question, and answering it does not keep faith with our initial promise.

I wonder if there wasn’t a failure of nerve on the part of the video apologist I mentioned earlier. It seemed to me as though he had shied away from the question he promised to address out of some sort of apprehension that he wasn’t adequate to addressing it. And if so, he was probably right: it’s a big question. But did he really suppose God couldn’t answer it? Or did he think that God would hold back the answer from him?

I’ve done a lot of speaking, debating and writing in the apologetics style. And here’s what I’ve found out. You may not know every answer right now, but God has all the answers: and if you trust him and keep asking, then in his time, he reveals to you what you need to know. The important thing is not to lose your nerve at the first sign of uncertainty, but to turn to God in faith and persist with the question.

Dual-Action Faith

That’s a two-fold commitment: first, to turn to God for the answer, not to man; but secondly, not to abandon the question. That second one takes nerve. It takes belief that God really does have all the answers, and that his intentions toward you are for your edification — not to cause you perplexity and failure. It’s a dual-action faith, we might say.

I wonder how much good, in terms of spiritual maturation, might come to the Christian community if we would face up to the tough questions ourselves. How good would it be for us to be precipitated down a lifetime course of searching for answers and learning to trust God with the hardest kinds of questions? What kind of a faith would emerge for us from a furnace like that?

Of course, as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego could tell you, it takes a lot of faith to step into the heat. But if you do it, then when you get in there, you find you’re not alone. Aliens in a hostile culture, they persevered in godliness and truth; and God was with them all the way.

But we forget that first there was a moment when God was not apparently there. And that moment lasted all the way up to the fiery furnace itself. Their unrelenting faith in the face of their own destruction set the conditions for the miraculous public triumph of God over the idols.

A Challenge

So I ask us: where is our nerve? What are the questions pressing on the minds of unbelievers today, and why do we not step up to the plate? Do we think God will not be with us? Do we imagine he intends thereby to allow our faith to falter and our cause to fail? Or do we believe that God’s word is true, his intentions are for our good, and his power is with us?

We’ll see the answer by our willingness to address the hard questions.


  1. Well, here is stepping up to the plate. It seems to me that suffering can be broadly put into two categories, a) due to the imperfections in our natural world through the Fall manifesting itself in happenings and circumstances mostly beyond our control (illness, disasters, etc.) and b) due to suffering brought on by mankind (also due to the Fall). It seems reasonable to suggest that God allows b) to be magnified and be probably proportional to the evil that we as individuals subscribe to and/or tolerate for various reasons (lack of religion, criminality, flawed character, attitude, habits, outlook and thinking). See paragraph below, which is an example why amplification of suffering is possibly permitted.

    Here is another affirmation that the modern world is on a downward spiral. I signed this petition to Fox TV to cancel their planned Lucifer program series. I urge you to do likewise. Fox is loosing me as a viewer if they go ahead with it.

    1. Good points. Thanks for taking a good swing. It means a lot to people if you take them seriously about what they are really asking.

      If I may, let me add a thought from philosopher Susan Neiman: there are two sorts of "evil" that she recognizes in the modern world. One is the evil that mankind does, and the second is the non-human "evil" of things like earthquakes, floods, non-behavioural diseases and so forth. She says that any answer worth its salt has to have some explanation for both types.

      I would agree. So any comprehensive answer needs to say something about human beings, and something about the natural world, I would say.

      On the Fox matter, I saw that they were starting such a series too, and like you I was not enchanted with the idea. However, I was not surprised, since there is very little to which the media will not stoop today. It makes me think of the proliferation of disaster, apocalypse and end-of-the-world shows they have...for the wicked, it seems that even their own destruction becomes a kind of entertainment.