Last year, I praised Clay Jones, a professor at Biola University, for an informal debate he had with atheist philosopher Richard Norman on the Unbelievable! radio show and podcast. As he said then, he believes that we Christians can offer much more in response to difficult questions about why God allows evil and suffering than “It’s a mystery.”
By contrast, at the mainline Protestant seminary I attended, we were only ever supposed to appeal to mystery and paradox in response to any difficult question. No wonder I find Dr. Jones’s clarity so refreshing.
In this new essay, he tackles one of the most difficult questions of all: Why does God allow children to suffer and die?
While urging humility, he offers three reasons:
First, children suffer and die due to pestilence and disease enabled when the Lord cursed the ground after Adam and Eve sinned. He banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, thus barring humans from the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life. God warned Adam and Eve that if they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17), and He didn’t add “at a ripe old age of natural causes.” He just said, “You will surely die,” and we’ve been attending funerals ever since. Second, children also suffer and die because of the mistakes and sins of others, such as leaving a pool gate unsecured, drunk driving, murder, and so on. Third, children suffer and die because natural laws work in regular ways: the gravity that keeps us on planet Earth also enables fatal falls; the fire that warms also burns; the water in which we swim can also drown.
If you’re still unconvinced, he challenges us to consider alternatives: What kind of universe would we live in if this weren’t the case?
His answer is a universe in which miracles happen frequently. God would be constantly intervening to protect us from ourselves and others. We would no longer be free. He quotes Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne:
If God is to allow us to acquire knowledge by learning from experience and above all to allow us to choose whether to acquire knowledge at all or even to allow us to have a very well-justified knowledge of the consequences of our actions—knowledge which we need if we are to have a free and efficacious choice between good and bad—he needs to provide natural evils occurring in regular ways in consequence of natural processes. Or rather, he needs to do this if he is not to give us too evident an awareness of his presence.
Did you catch that last sentence? What’s wrong with God’s giving us “too evident an awareness of his presence”?
It’s not that God doesn’t want everyone to come to saving knowledge of him through his Son Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4); it’s that he wants us to freely choose him. As Jones writes, God “gives enough evidence of His existence so that those who want to believe will have their beliefs justified, but not so much evidence that those who don’t want to believe will be forced to feign loyalty.”
Christian apologists spend a lot of time justifying belief in God’s existence. I do that, too. But God doesn’t want us merely to believe he exists, that he possesses certain attributes, or even that he came into the world through Jesus. As James says, “You believe in one God. Good! Even the demons belief and shudder.”
No, God wants us to love and trust him. God knows that faith is the best vehicle for this love and trust.
As Jones writes, “Because the Lord doesn’t want to interfere with our free will, He gives enough evidence of His existence so that those who want to believe will have their beliefs justified, but not so much evidence that those who don’t want to believe will be forced to feign loyalty.”