Spufford falters on the “problem of pain”

July 7, 2014

spuffordThere’s much to like about atheist-turned-believer Francis Spufford’s apologetic for Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. He’s a funny, winsome writer and sharp thinker.

In the chapter called “Big Daddy,” he offers an unconventional but compelling defense of God’s existence based on the way that we human beings so often experience God. By the end of the chapter, however, he raises the logical problem of believing in a God-of-everything, as we Christians believe, versus believing in many gods or no God at all. Believing in a God-of-everything means believing that God is ultimately responsible for evil and suffering. Without flinching, he states the problem as well as any hardened skeptic:

But one point at which you can know you’ve started to believe is the point at which the tentative houseroom or headroom you’re giving to the God of everything starts to have emotional consequences of its own. Problematic consequences; uncomfortable consequences; unpleasant consequences. Because if the bastard does exist, if the God of everything is shining patiently in every room, then you can’t escape the truth that He must be shining in some horrible places. He must be lending his uncritical sustaining power to rooms in which the vilest things are happening. There He must be, obligingly maintaining the flow of electrons through the rusty wires that are conducting 240 volts into the soft tissue of some poor screaming soul in a torture chamber. There He must be, benignly silent, as a migrant worker is raped at a truck stop. There He must be, shining contentedly away, in the overrun emergency room where the children from a crushed school bus are dying.

And when you’ve noticed that you’re ready for the next act in the emotional drama of belief we’re following here. Which is, of course, horrified disgust.[1]

What follows in the next chapter is his response to the “problem of pain.” I like this:

Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently, that this ought not to be a problem for believers, because—curl of lip—we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of—preen—the brave unbeliever. But I don’t know many actual Christians (as opposed to the conjectural idiots of atheist fantasy) who feel this way, or anything like it.[2]

That’s exactly right. Even as a pastor, no Christian doctrine seems less believable to me, in the face of senseless, tragic death, than the doctrine of heaven. It feels like pie-in-the-sky, like escapism. Don’t get me wrong: I come back around to believing in it eventually, but only through intellectual effort. In the face of death, I find comfort instead in the fact that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, even though he knew that he would bring him back to life.

No: death is hard on everyone—on Jesus, on ordinary believers like me, and on atheists. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Beyond these words, Spufford concedes way too much ground to Christianity’s cultured despisers. He sets up many of the traditional defenses of God’s goodness (in spite of the bad stuff in the world) and knocks them down far too glibly. Take this, for instance:

I’ve seen a church newsletter in which the Almighty is thanked for fixing the minister’s car, via a miraculously cheap quote from a garage. But it only takes a little of the cold wind of adversity to blow this stuff away—and only a little thought. For if God was willing to exert Himself over the minister’s spark plugs, but wouldn’t get out of bed to stop the Holocaust, what sort of picture that draw? What sort of loving deity could have the priorities that the cruel world reveals, if the cruel world is an accurate record of His intentions, once you look beyond reality’s little gated communities of niceness.[3]

Not so fast, Mr. Spufford. First, reality is far more prodigal with its “niceness” than you let on here. As N.T. Wright once said, the problem of good ought to be a far bigger problem for unbelievers than the problem of evil is for believers. Why? Because there’s just so much goodness to go around!

When I was in Kenya last year teaching theology and doctrine to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors, some of my fellow “short-term missionaries” visited a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Nakuru. They went to provide food, clothing, and medicine to families who were squatting there. This wasn’t, as my missionary friend Bill told us, Western-style garbage. No bourgeois “freegan” would be found there rummaging for day-old bread. Yet here were families attempting to sustain themselves in this place that was very nearly hell on earth. (The Bible’s word for hell is gehenna, literally a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.) It was horrifying, my friends reported. It drove them to tears.

But here’s what they also reported: young children in the midst of this garbage laughing, singing, and playing—experiencing joy. It doesn’t seem right, does it—in this place so far removed from any “gated community of niceness.” But there you are. Life is like that. Even at its worst, there’s still so much good. Why?

In his paragraph above, Spufford says that since God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to help this minister get his car repaired? Well, there it is: reductio ad Hitlerum. Is there anything we can say in the face of the Holocaust’s enormity?

I hope so—because by the standard of the Holocaust, nearly everything that happens in the world is trivial. Certainly, nothing in my little life rates God’s care or attention! Spufford complains about spark plugs, but please… he’s stacking the deck. “If God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to save the life of a child afflicted with leukemia?” “If God didn’t intervene to save the lives of six million people, why would God intervene to save 300,000 people from the Indian Ocean tsunami?” And forget about 3,000 in the Twin Towers on 9/11!

By this logic, if God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, God doesn’t intervene to do anything. Ever. At this point, the New Atheist are nodding approvingly: “That’s what we’ve been saying for years!”

All that to say, I hope we have some response to Spufford’s logic. Because if Spufford is right, the idea that God answers prayer is a joke—despite what our Lord teaches us repeatedly about the subject. In the face of senseless tragedy in his day, Jesus said seemingly harsh things like, “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” Needless to say, Jesus had a far more robust understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence—and, to say the least, he knew more about these matters than Spufford or I.

So, perhaps the second thing I need to say in response to Spufford is, let’s be humble about what we think we know about suffering and death. This is an important theme of Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book on the subject, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, which came out last year.

Third, we need to remind ourselves, as C.S. Lewis points out, that the scale of suffering is irrelevant to the question of God’s justice.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[4]

Lewis isn’t minimizing suffering and evil; he’s merely pointing out that if you’re going to become indignant about six million dying in Hitler’s death camps, you have no less reason to become indignant about six people in a trailer park getting flattened by a tornado.

Also, before we become indignant on other people’s behalf, let’s ask ourselves about believers in God who actually suffered in the Holocaust. Read, for instance, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for MeaningDid these believers experience God as not “getting out of bed” to help them? Of course some did, I’m sure. But many didn’t. Why? What sustained them?

For that matter, what does it mean that the most comfortable suburban Christians (or ex-Christians) become the most indignant about the suffering of others? My pastor friends in Kenya see far more suffering and death there than most of us do here, yet they’re, in general, far more faithful. In fact, in my experience as a pastor, the most advanced believers get the least worked up about their own suffering, often perceiving God’s hand at work in their lives, answering their prayers, and blessing others through them. Would Spufford tell them they’re wrong to feel this way?

Besides, who says God didn’t “get out of bed” to stop the Holocaust? He did stop it, through men like Dwight Eisenhower and the fighting forces of the United States, among many others. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/ He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Amen! This hymn writer rightly understands how God works in history. “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

Speaking of which, here’s another aspect of heaven (and hell) to which Spufford gives short shrift (at least so far): vengeance belongs to God, and he will repay. In eternity, justice will be fully and finally done. Those six million lives lost in the Holocaust will be avenged.

Finally, in my own experience, here’s what I know for sure: most of the suffering that I suffer I bring on myself. It’s not caused so much by external events as my response to those events. As a friend of mine reminded me earlier this year, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.” In my own experience, I can’t argue with that. Can Spufford?

Maybe he’ll answer that question before the end of the book. I’m not encouraged so far.

1. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 84-5.

2. Ibid., 92.

3. Ibid., 94.

4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

2 Responses to “Spufford falters on the “problem of pain””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    “Speaking of which, here’s another aspect of heaven (and hell) to which Spufford gives short shrift (at least so far): vengeance belongs to God, and he will repay. In eternity, justice will be fully and finally done. Those six million lives lost in the Holocaust will be avenged.” I think this is ultimately the best answer to the charges against God based on suffering. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present world are not worthy to be compared…,” Paul says. And certainly Paul was in the class of people who had a lot of suffering, yet even he believed heaven would more than make up for that! It does take “faith” to believe that, which is one reason why devoted Christians have much more “tolerance” towards pain (certainly their own, but even more “global” suffering) than do atheists or more “nominal” believers. “But without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a REWARDER of those who diligently seek him.” Not necessarily an “immediate” rewarder, but certainly ultimately one. And considering the “ultimate” is of eternal duration, that’s a pretty good bargain!

    Don’t get me wrong, though–I certainly don’t look forward to suffering or enjoy going through it! Suffering is a “bad thing” in and of itself. Which is why Jesus could cry over Lazarus (as you point out). And why there won’t be any in heaven. But even the Son was “made perfect through suffering.” It presently operates as a “necessary means” to a more blessed ultimate outcome.


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