The best argument for atheism: Where is God when our children die?

December 1st, 2015

Something about the suffering of children strikes at the core of faith in a benevolent deity. Dostoevsky saw this in his infamous chapter in Brothers Karamazov in which Jesus is put on trial by the Grand Inquisitor; more recently, the moral conscience of the world has been aroused by the sight of a dead Syrian child washed up ashore after seeking refuge. There are few tragedies that demand a reverent silence more than the death of a child. But the question still lingers heavy. Christians rightly celebrate Jesus’ command in Matthew 19:14 to “let the little children come to me,” but how do we explain Christ’s mercy if we are faced with burying one of those beloved children?

When the famed preacher William Sloane Coffin eulogized his son, something no parent should ever face, he went head-on against assertions from well-meaning friends that God had a hand in Alex’s death:

“The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die … God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

As Coffin’s experience attests, when a tragedy happens, Christians are often quick to interrupt the silence of grief with the tried and trite. How many funerals have you been to where you hear something like the following:

• “God wanted another flower for his garden.”
• “God has a plan.”
• “God needed another angel in heaven.”

When two or more strongly held beliefs conflict with one another, the result is known as cognitive dissonance. All of the above expressions are attempts — as problematic as they are — to understand death, tragedy and evil. They are attempts to relieve the cognitive dissonance people of faith experience in times of tragedy.

When faced with the question of theodicy (“the justice of God”), Christians typically address the resulting cognitive dissonance in one of the following ways:

  • Compromising God’s power; God must not be omnipotent, at least in the ways we thought.
  • Compromising God’s knowledge; God must not be omniscient, at least in the usual sense.
  • Compromising God’s love; maybe God isn’t all-loving in the way that we thought.
  • Compromising the innocence of the sufferers. Every time a major disaster happens, some famous Christian (usually a televangelist) makes headlines claiming that what happened was God’s judgment.

As you may already be anticipating, there’s a problem with these responses. For Christians who are committed to the God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures that testify to him, none of these are workable options.

“Nowhere,” wrote David Bentley Hart, “does the New Testament rationalize evil or accord it necessity or treat it as part of the necessary fabric of God’s world. All that Christian Scripture asserts is that evil cannot defeat God’s purposes or thwart the coming of his kingdom.” Some Christian leaders are a bit sly in addressing this. Tim Keller takes a more open-ended tack, drawing on Alvin Plantinga to suggest that just because we do not know or cannot imagine what God’s purpose is, it does not follow that there isn’t a purpose. While technically correct, it is pastorally unhelpful and theologically monstrous. Could there ever be a good reason that God let your child die? While I believe, as Adam Hamilton has helpfully named, that God can and does bring good out of evil (such as the Joseph story), God is never the author of evil.

This is where I believe a challenge ought to be made to the Calvinism undergirding so much of our reflections on suffering. As an Arminian, I am not burdened by a need to see God’s hand in all that happens. I am free to say, with Coffin, that God’s heart was the first to break when his son was drowning. (I know that image doesn’t hold up to systematic theologizing, but then, neither do the Psalms). Moreover, God cares. God hears our lament, our cries of agony, fear and abandonment (remember here Jesus’ own cry of dereliction drawn from Psalm 22). Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, and weeps for us when we bury our children.

Unfortunately, Christians have largely lost the capacity to lament. Instead of being honest with God, we either white-knuckle it, and pretend everything is okay, or we rationalize it. But lament is a much more biblical, and a much healthier, way to address raw realities and heart-wrenching questions than saccharine platitudes. The questions remain. This is probably the strongest arrow in the quiver of Christianity’s atheist critics. I find it easy to dismiss the histrionics of someone like Richard Dawkins, who long ago crossed the line from science to fundamentalism and from atheist to anti-theist. But the theodicy question challenges us as does nothing else. It’s a question that any mature person of faith has to acknowledge at some point.

Even insisting that God did not cause the death of a child will not be fully satisfying, for we are still left to ponder why a God who does work miracles did not work one for my child. As Nicholas Wolterstorff confessed when grieving his young son who died in a climbing accident:

I cannot fit it all together by saying, "[God] did it," but neither can I do so by saying, "There was nothing he could do about it." I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric's death. To live without the answer is precarious.

Precarious, but honest.

What we do know about evil and suffering is that they are not God’s intention, and their days are numbered. God does not desire the death of anyone – even the wicked (Ezekiel 18:33) – much less an innocent child. The Christian story is not about a God who is indifferent to suffering, because we worship a God who suffered on the cross. Our God is not indifferent to rejection and betrayal because he was rejected and betrayed. Our God is not indifferent to sin, evil and death because the Word became flesh and faced all of them, defeating them by subjecting himself to the worst they could muster. Their power was broken on Easter morning, and one day Christ will return, heaven will come to earth, making all things new, wiping away every tear, and death itself will be trampled. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed, as 1 Corinthians 15:26 reminds us.

We live in the meantime, when the thief can still break in and steal our children. But death’s days are numbered. Until we rejoice in that final victory to come, let us not make peace with our enemy on any terms.

This is the first article in “Encountering Atheism,” a three-part series by Drew McIntyre. Drew blogs at Plowshares into Swords and co-hosts the WesleyCast.

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