If 2014 reminded us of anything, it is that evil and suffering are near. Painfully, hauntingly, inescapably near. From ISIS and Ebola abroad to racial tensions and Christian scandals close to home, we are living and grieving amid the wreckage of Eden.
Does the sheer breadth of seemingly pointless pain disprove the existence of a supposedly good God? What does it mean to think and live and survive as a Christian in a world like ours? In their new book Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (FaithWords), renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale look with unflinching focus at many of the hardest questions we face as humans. The result is an unusually fresh resource that will challenge the skeptical, equip the faithful, and comfort the hurting.
I spoke with Vitale, teacher at Wycliffe Hall of Oxford University and senior tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, about new approaches he and Ravi introduce, whether atheists can account for morality, why he agrees with Nietzsche, and more.
What motivated you and Ravi to write Why Suffering?
It’s common to think there are only one or two Christian responses to the problem of suffering. It’s common to think there’s nothing new to be said on the topic. It’s common for a sharp division to be made between responding to the question of suffering intellectually and responding to it emotionally.
As Ravi and I had conversations on this topic, we found we were united in wanting to question all three of these assumptions. We wanted to write something that would be helpful for seekers and Christians alike, for those with intellectual questions and for those who are hurting. We wanted to help show that the intellectual and emotional challenges are deeply related, and that there aren’t just one or two Christian responses to suffering but rather the variety of responses one would expect from a God who loves each and every person and desires to meet us amid the great variety of circumstances and challenges we find ourselves in.
Do you think the problem of pain is the greatest obstacle to belief in Christ?
For many people, I think it is. It’s such a serious objection because it strikes at the very heart of the gospel: can God still love us if he allows us to suffer?
In the book Ravi and I suggest that there are numerous responses to this objection—some very old, some newer—and that just as a multiplicity of witnesses can strengthen a case in a law court, the multiplicity of responses to the problem of suffering should strengthen our confidence in the goodness of God.
But while pain can be a great obstacle, it’s also one of the greatest reasons to turn to God. The more seriously we take the problem of suffering—indeed the more seriously we take the people who suffer—the more we will be led to trust the God who can do something about it.
What are some of the new approaches you discuss in the book?
There are several. One of them suggests that when we wish for another world—a very different world that does not include the possibilities for suffering present in our world—we may unwittingly be wishing ourselves out of existence. And if God’s deep desire is to love you and me and every person we see walking down the street, and to call each of us into relationship with himself, then that complicates the question of what sort of world God might allow to exist.
In another new approach we make an analogy between divine creation and human procreation, and ask those who think evil disproves God to consider the following question: if it’s immoral to create beings in an environment that includes the possibility of serious suffering, then is it immoral for human parents to have a child? We suggest that the same reasons for thinking having a child can be an act of love are also reasons for believing divine creation can be an act of love.
We also take a comparative worldview approach in the book. Criticism without alternative is empty. If one rejects Christianity’s response to suffering, one has to ask what alternative responses are available. After looking at responses from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and naturalism, we suggest that the Christian response stands tall above any other teaching on pain and suffering.
Atheists have strong moral feelings about all kinds of things. How, then, can you claim the existence of moral values is incompatible with their worldview?
When someone challenges me with the problem of evil, we actually have a point of agreement, since they’re agreeing with me that when we look around our world there are some things that aren’t the way they’re supposed to be; there are some things that are genuinely, objectively evil.
Some atheists think this shows that there is no God. I think it shows the exact opposite.
Something is only truly evil if it is a violation of a moral law. But, Ravi then challenges, how can there be a moral law if there is not a moral lawgiver?
We can ask this question of atheism: if there is no overarching moral law or moral lawgiver, how are we supposed to decide what’s good and what’s evil? Are we supposed to decide just by our feelings? That’s what the famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested, and if we give up on God, it seems that’s all we are left with.
But as Ravi points out, some people feel like loving their neighbors; some people feel like eating their neighbors. How are we supposed to tell which of these is the good feeling and which is the evil feeling?
The person who objects to God because of evil can only make his objection by already assuming the God he’s trying to disprove, because only God provides a stable moral reality that allows us to call good “good” and evil “evil.”
What does someone need when they are experiencing suffering?
The challenge, I find, is that what each person needs when suffering is very personal. There’s no one-size-fits-all. I once responded to my Aunt Regina’s questions about suffering with a rather philosophical answer, and she responded, “But Vince, that doesn’t speak to me as a mother.” Since that conversation, I’ve listened and prayed much longer before assuming I know what someone needs.
Ultimately, what we need is the presence of a loved one. And when we have the chance to be that loved one for another, our temporary presence can act as an invitation to a life with One who is always present. One of the greatest gifts of the Christian life is that you never need to wonder if a loved one is near; you never need to wonder if a loved one understands. That Person is always with you, even within you.
How is Christianity unique in the way it approaches suffering? How does it “stand tall above any other teaching on pain and suffering and go beyond any other answers to our problem”?
In a number of ways. Many ways of seeing the world assume that if you’re suffering, it’s your fault. Jesus says otherwise. While suffering can be traced back to humanity’s fall into sin, Jesus is clear we cannot assume from the fact that a person is suffering that it’s their fault or that they’re being punished. A second distinctive of the Christian response to suffering is this: God promises that one day he will wipe away every tear. What an amazing claim, that God himself will wipe away our tears.
And perhaps most unique is that the Christian God chose to suffer with us. Suffering’s greatest cruelty is its isolation. The Christian never suffers alone. Ironically, Nietzsche may have said it best: “The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory [response to the problem of suffering] ever invented.” Nietzsche was speaking of the ancient Greeks and remarkably never made the connection to Christianity! I’m very pleased to agree with him and then point emphatically to the cross of Jesus Christ, to the cross of the only God loving enough to suffer with us and for us.