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IF ALL the grief of all the world throughout all the generations since history began were to be heaped up, the mountainous size of it would blot out the sun.
Life can be a blessedly difficult thing, its trials and tribulations and the bitter tail ends of broken dreams and ambitions which straggle behind as our years tick on accentuate the often grim reality of our condition. There are few among us who would not like the chance to start again. The notion of a ‘second chance’ is intuitive and informs relations in legal and social justice and in our personal connexions. Forgiving another for wrongs committed is, at root, the granting of a second, or a third, or a fourth chance. Jesus seemed to hint at an inexhaustible number in Matthew 18, verse 22, when He enumerated ‘seventy times seven’. The figure is undoubtedly figurative. In any event, most of us will very likely have exceeded 490 offences well before we reach middle age.
Waters Under the Bridge
It always comes as a shock to me, on hearing of the death of a little-known neighbour or a distant relative, to realise that he or she has occupied the planet for decades, perhaps toiling at the same job for forty years or more, marrying, raising children, out of my narrow vision, and in comparative obscurity, unheralded outside of the tight sphere of associates, family and friends. This is true for the rank and file, millions who have come and gone from the face of earth, having collectively acquired a vast range of experience and knowledge – an as-yet untapped mine.
It’s so easy to lose track of people. They disappear into the faceless mass of humanity, cropping up now and then in the bereaved notices or the crime statistics as victims. Which reminds me that in the not-too-long-ago, murder was comparatively rare in Britain. Over the years we have all become inured to the litany of misery which people inflict on one another. News presenters skip with polish from one horrible, tragic incident to another, often winding up with a light-hearted palate cleanser to cheer us up a bit. Added to the grisly toll is the latest data on refugees hounded from one place to another, an earthquake in a remote region, a crowd gone mad – well, it’s a long list. A curtain of benign indifference has descended. It’s not that we have ceased to care. But the problems now flow so widely and on such a global scale that our pool of compassion is quickly drained and we are obliged to turn our attention to a narrower, more comfortable arena.
Yes, it’s easy to lose track of people. How thankful I am that God does not. ‘What's that?’ I hear you say. ‘If God were busy watching out for us the tragedies wouldn’t happen in the first place!’ The point is well taken. It’s certainly an understandable reaction. But the assumption underlying the accusation – for it is an accusation – is not sound. God does not pay all His bills on a Thursday. I don’t mean this as a trite response. Rather, it contains a profound truth, which goes to the heart of why suffering exists at all and – to more directly address the objections – why it has gone on for so long: God does not work on anyone’s schedule but His own.
The Doctrine of Non-Intervention
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father [knowing].’ So says Jesus (Matthew 10: 29).[fn1] This is not to say that God is in the business of counting sparrows, or hairs on the head, or blades of grass. Setting aside the consoling aspect of this remark to His disciples – namely, that God is watchful over His people in exquisite detail – the secondary import of our Lord’s comment, and germane to the theme of this article, is twofold: God knows about it . . . but permits it anyway. The sparrow falls, and God does not prevent it from falling. This hard kernel of truth is indigestible for most and is akin to those tough sayings of Jesus which caused many to turn away from Him (John 6: 60, 61, 66). Jesus was not running in a popularity contest.
Nor is God.
To repeat, God may not act to avert a tragedy. This has nothing to do with the virtue or lack of it on the part of the victims. However, this is not to say that He will never act. The tragedies accumulate until the Divine hand is raised, Halt! In that better day to come (the Millennial Age) grievances will not only be redressed, they will be more than adequately compensated for (Acts 3: 20, 21). So much so, that the restitution promised will reverse all the damage. Mankind cannot learn the lessons crucial to eternal existence without experiencing loss or suffering. This fact needs to be digested and understood if you wish to put the history of the world in the context of an intelligent faith. That suffering is unevenly distributed is indisputable. But in this respect the general observation of the atheist is correct: suffering is random. This, however, does not denote powerlessness on the part of the Creator. Nor is it targeted affliction by a vengeful, malicious supreme being.[fn2]
Cosmic Scale, Cosmic Problems
We live in a universe of jaw-dropping scale and variety. From the infinitely large galactic universe to the infinitely small sub-sub-atomic micro universe in and around us. This astonishing complexity and organisation is largely incomprehensible. We assemble our knowledge of it in fragmentary fashion and often labour under false ideas about it for years until new information comes along. The construction of a systematic understanding about anything requires the combined efforts and insights of numerous minds and fortunate accidents – discoveries chanced upon in the process of looking for something else.
The belief that Science has all the answers may prevail for some time yet. Far from operating the machinery, it appears to the casual onlooker that God has got lost in it. So Science has taken it over, nodding sagely over bits it likes, finding fault with other bits, taking credit for great chunks of it, but is not vaguely interested in the Engineer.
It’s not necessary to understand how the internal combustion engine works in order to drive the car. Likewise, failure to believe in God does not prevent the human mind from dissecting or explaining accurately various aspects of the physical world or achieving noble ends. The painter need not be virtuous to lay down a masterpiece, nor a composer a saint to produce a majestic symphony. I’ve often wondered about this myself. It would be so much neater if virtue and talent were linked, would it not? So, for example, you couldn’t write godly music unless you were pious, or you couldn’t make profound or life-altering statements if you didn’t have faith. Sort of like not being able to start your car if you were drunk because an electric sensor wouldn’t let you. But it’s not like that, all neat and tidy. It’s messy and complicated and there are great gaping holes all over the place into which unbelief fits very nicely, thank you.
Take Me to Your Leader
At the launch by the USSR of Sputnik in 1957, scientists in the United States – who had been taken off guard by this achievement and were suitably grumpy – attempted to decipher the signals emanating from it, looking for a meaningful sequence which would give a clue to its purpose. In the same way astronomers today use expensive, sophisticated listening equipment to track signals from space, hoping to find a ‘non-random’ stream of data, coherent enough to identify intelligent life.
Yet confronted with the laws and forces of physics and the immense complexity and directed purpose of the genetic code they generally choose to ignore the possibility that intelligent Mind is behind it. NASA, the ESA, or the space programmes of Japan do not plan their explorations to prove the existence or desirability of a Creator, but to find evidence to the contrary. One suspects that the too-easy dismissal of an Intelligent Cause has less to do with the evidence in Its favour than with the reluctance to have to acknowledge It.
What has this to do with the permission of evil?
The disarray in human affairs is traceable to the injection of free will into the equation. This masterstroke on the part of the Creator made possible a creature crafted in His own ‘image’. But the dark side of this equation introduced the possibility of chaos, which is indeed what we got when the first man, Adam, chose to disobey. But this is no experiment gone awry – a sort of Dr. Frankenstein writ large. God has allowed the chaos but is not outdistanced by it. Omniscience permits what Omnipotence need not control. That is, the random experiences of human existence will, in total, produce the intended result. God can permit rebellion in His creation without fear of losing control. This is true Genius.
Dictators don’t operate this way. They issue edicts, prescriptive laws, sanctions for everything. They check up on you, monitor what you say, what you write, what you think. ‘Sorry, can’t go to that Website. Sorry, can’t travel to that country.’ If you don't conform they throw you in prison, or worse. This is not how God operates. He is not the Great Aggrandizer popularised in atheistic literature a la Richard Dawkins. God is not on a vendetta against His own creatures.
The wail of an ambulance siren may be the most hopeful sound in the world. For all the callousness a world weary of suffering has developed, there remains a fundamental respect for human life. Every response to a 999 call to save a life is a tacit acknowledgement that humanity has worth. This faculty is a remnant of the original imprint on man’s character as formed by God. It will be rescued and burnished, fit for eternity.
– A. Prentice
Copyright May 2009 A. Prentice and ukbiblestudents.co.uk
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[fn1] The companion text to this is Luke 12: 6, which informs us that five sparrows could be had for two farthings. This suggests that there was a discount in effect – the more sparrows you bought, the more you saved. The detail is interesting in that it adds authenticity to the account. For more details, see Clarke’s Commentary on both texts.
[fn2] The randomness of suffering, quite apart from the existence of it, is often adduced to prove that an intelligent First Cause cannot exist. But the evident non-randomness of the atomic structure or the purposive nature of DNA is never used to prove that it might.