I am reading Brian Morley’s excellent book, Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches. I will probably write and post my review of this book tomorrow. Today, I want to use something from the book as a starting-point for this post.
On pages 278-279, in discussing the approach of Christian apologist Norman Geisler, Morley states the following:
“In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus (1913-1960) set up a dilemma in which one must either join the doctor and fight a plague that God sent on a sinful city, or join the priest and refuse to fight the plague since that would be fighting God. The implied claim is that if humanitarianism is right, theism is wrong. But Geisler says this is a false dichotomy in that the right solution may be to fight the plague as a way of working for God. If the theist believed that stubborn human sin brought on the plague, then the only way to deal with it is to encourage repentance. Part of that may be demonstrating love by fighting the plague. Furthermore, there is no reason why we cannot lovingly help heal the wounds that were the result of sinful behavior.”
This made me think of a couple of things. First of all, there was a debate between a Christian and an atheist that I heard a couple of weeks ago while I was sorting out my clothes for packing. The Christian was David Marshall, and the atheist was Richard Carrier, both of whose thoughts I have discussed on this blog. The debate was over the question of whether the Christian faith is reasonable. The debate covered a variety of issues, but the one that I want to mention is Carrier’s question of why God and Jesus did not teach people in the ancient world sanitary habits, which would have reduced disease and allowed people to live longer. When Jesus in Mark 7 was criticizing the Pharisees who believed in handwashing before meals for the purpose of ritual purity, why didn’t Jesus take the opportunity to tell people that washing one’s hands before meals is a good sanitary practice, even if it has no spiritual value? I do not entirely remember David Marshall’s response—-I think Marshall said that the existence of evil in the world is not inconsistent with the existence of a loving God or the reasonableness of Christianity—-but I do recall Carrier’s response to Marshall. Carrier asked why, if God permits evil for a good reason, humans should even try to alleviate it. Marshall did not give an in-depth response to this question, but he seemed to think that Carrier was caricaturing or misrepresenting his position.
Second, I was thinking about my church’s prayer list. After my church went through the Bible study When God’s People Pray, we have been receiving each week a list of people to pray for. To be honest, I am not sure what exactly to pray. Do I pray that every sick person on the list receive healing? But some people on the list are really old, and no one can live forever, for death is a part of life. At the same time, I do not want to be callous, for I recognize that the sick old people are valuable in the eyes of their friends and family. What I have done is to pray for God’s blessing on each person on the list: if healing is appropriate, may God heal; if it is a person’s time to go, may God be with and prepare that person and his or her loved ones. Even here, though, I have theological problems or questions. Okay, so God knows bests and God does what is best. But there are horrible things that happen in this world, and one reason that I pray is so that people on the list can experience good, not bad. Sure, there are people in the world who go deaf and who have no money to buy a hearing aid under our ridiculous health care system, but I am still praying that one lady in my church will not go deaf. If what happens is God’s good will, anyway, then what is the point of me praying and making certain requests? I believe that part of prayer is hoping that God will intervene and bring good in someone’s life, even though it does not seem that good always happens in a lot of people’s lives. I hope that my question is clear. It is vaguely clear to myself!
In reading Morley recently, I was going through Morley’s discussion of apologist Richard Swinburne. Swinburne was looking for reasons that evil and death exist in the world; so did Geisler, for that matter. Both agreed that evil in the world presents us with opportunities to be good—-can we be merciful, if there is no sin to be merciful towards? But Swinburne was also seeking to explain the existence of death. He said that death allows a newer, younger generation to step forward and use its talents. One can probably think of other reasons for death: it prevents overpopulation, which can be devastating when there are limited resources. Of course, looking for valid reasons for death can arguably undercut certain versions of Christianity, particularly the type that says that death entered the world after the Fall of Adam and Eve. If Adam and Eve had obeyed God and not sinned, would there be no death, and thus would there be an overpopulation of humans and animals, who would compete for limited resources? I saw an atheist YouTube video that mockingly asked this question, with cartoons. On the other hand, atheist biblical scholar Robert Price argued that, in Genesis 2, God does not want Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, for God does not desire to compete with others for his pleasure garden, and God punishes Eve with pain in childbearing to reinforce that point. That is intriguing, maybe possible, but many Christians do not go that route, specifically the ones who read Genesis 2 in juxtaposition with Genesis 1, in which God tells the man and the woman to be fruitful and multiply.
But let’s return to the topic of why Christians should try to alleviate suffering, if suffering serves some purpose in God’s plan. I do not have any adequate answer to that, except to say that God may be permitting suffering to give us an opportunity to love and to be compassionate. When we love—-and that can include pity, but also researching to cure disease and to soften the blow of natural disasters—-then we are obeying God and becoming what God wants us to be. I don’t think that we will ever arrive at the point where there are no problems, but, even if we arrive at the point where there are fewer problems, we can look back at how things were before and appreciate where love has brought us—-at a point where fewer people suffer as they once did.
Granted, what I say above can be developed. I was recently reading a blog post about how God’s heart is broken by things that happen in this world. And yet, God supposedly permits these things for some benevolent purpose. How can one be broken by evil in the world, and yet clinically look at it as fulfilling some grand purpose, as if evil is not really evil but is good in disguise?
Anyway, those are some ramblings.
UPDATE: This is not my official review, but I should probably mention that I received this book as a complimentary review copy from Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.