An atheist meme going around social media includes a picture of a pensive looking older man, ostensibly a former pastor, saying the following:
I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.
I planned on ignoring this meme, wondering why it took a Christian pastor (assuming he’s a real person) 58 years to realize that this world for which God takes complete responsibility is also a place in which not only evil and suffering occur, but they also do so in ways that seem absurdly unfair and indiscriminate.
I changed my mind about responding, however, after a clergy friend linked to the meme on Facebook, with the words, “Amen!” attached to it.
What exactly was my colleague affirming? In the comments section of her post, she said that she doesn’t believe that God would permit one child to die of an illness while saving another.
Really? What’s the alternative? Either God permits evil or he doesn’t. If he permits it, that means he has the power to stop it but chooses not to. If he doesn’t permit it, that means that while God may hate evil, he’s powerless to stop it. The latter option absolves God of responsibility for evil at an unacceptably high price for us Christians: God is impotent in the face of evil, and the Bible isn’t telling us the truth about him.
There are several other problems with the ex-pastor’s words.
The first relates to gratitude. If we can’t thank God for being the sole survivor of a plane crash (to use the ex-pastor’s example), we can’t thank God for anything at all.
Here’s why: Whereas we’re extremely unlikely to be involved in a plane crash, most of us, at least in the first-world, eat three square meals each day (or have the opportunity to). How can we be grateful to our Father for giving us this day our daily bread when so many people in the world are starving? How is that not also, in the words of the ex-pastor, “just cruel”?
By this same logic, we should disregard Jesus’ and the Bible’s many words about the importance of petitionary prayer. After all, by this ex-pastor’s logic, it wouldn’t be fair for God to give me what I ask for when he fails to give someone else what they ask for.
But suppose we still believe in petitionary prayer. Suppose God chooses not to give us what we ask for in prayer: Do we assume that God is capricious—and whether or not God answers prayer is a crap-shoot—or do we assume God has good reasons for not giving us what we ask for? All of us Christians would agree that God has good reasons.
To say that, however, implies purpose.
So, getting back to the plane crash, we would be theologically justified in saying that God has a purpose in enabling one person to survive even if all the other people die—many of whom were undoubtedly also praying for their personal safety.
The ex-pastor is wrong to say that if God enables one person to survive he therefore kills everyone else on board. No—the laws of physics, or poor judgment, or mechanical error, or some combination thereof, are likely what “killed” everyone else on board.
Nevertheless, since God has the power to prevent the plane from crashing and people from dying, God is still responsible. Let’s be tough-minded enough to say so. As the Psalms make clear, God can handle our anger, hurt, and disappointment.
To help us do that, I heartily recommend the following three books:
C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain,
Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.