On All Saints Day 1755, the ground of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, was split open by an earthquake of a magnitude somewhere between 8.5 and 9, the centre of which was some 200 miles out in the Atlantic. Those fleeing falling masonry made for the open area around the docks where they noticed the tide sucking out the sea from the coast. Some 40 minutes later, a tsunami hit the city. In Lisbon alone, tens of thousands of people lost their lives.
It was the defining event for a generation of Enlightenment-inspired philosophers who began to put into words questions that had been circulating as far back as the ancient Greeks about the relationship between God’s benevolence and the senseless suffering that exists in the world. They called it “the problem of evil”.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
In 1779, David Hume gave it its classic formulation:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is be both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?”
For a certain sort of atheist of the Enlightenment school, this argument is the slam-dunk against God’s existence. And, inevitably, the question has returned, as it always does at moments of crisis and fear. How can religious minded people go on asserting God’s existence at a time when thousands of people around the world are dying from this hideous virus? Where is God in all this horror?
Indeed, in the battle between God and the virus, the virus seems to be winning. It has shut down the churches, and shifted the centre of spiritual gravity to the hospital. It is the NHS, not God, that heals. This is our religion now. The old religion of God has become an archaic irrelevance.
“God is dead”, Nietzsche famously proclaimed. Though he was theologically savvy enough to know that this phrase would play tricks with people. And that many wouldn’t understand the in-joke. As a child of a long line of Lutheran pastors, Nietzsche would probably have sung the Lutheran hymn “O sorrow, O suffering” (Johannes Rist, 1641) many times as a child. “O great distress! God himself lies dead. On the cross he died and by doing so has won for us the realm of heaven.”
God’s death is not something that Christians cannot imagine. Indeed, it is at the core of their proclamation. Atheists who wave this banner, beware. For the phrase “God is dead” plays squarely into the hands of the Christian evangelist. It recalls an event that is at the very heart of their narrative.
So how would I answer David Hume? I would say there is no such thing as an omnipotent God. Omnipotence is not a word in the Bible. And the idea of omnipotence comes from a completely different tradition of intellectual thought from that of the Hebrew scriptures. The idea of God as a human being hanging helpless on a Roman instrument of torture is not an image of omnipotence. In this sense, Hume’s challenge is not one that has ever detained me very much.
But I also have a far deeper problem with the way in which this question is posed. For a while, I taught philosophy at Oxford University. I also have a PhD in the subject. But in the end I gave up philosophy as an unsatisfactory discipline; not least because it seemed to me to be fundamentally unserious about many of the sorts of things it argues about, and particularly when it comes to suffering.
As a priest, dealing with death and loss all the time, no one has ever asked me the Hume type question, and certainly not in his measured tones. Never. Yes, many have been fantastically angry, spitting out the question “why?” as an accusation against anyone and everything. Many have been broken by their experience of pain and loss, alone in a dark room, unable to make themselves food or get out of bed. Perhaps it is unfair of me to call philosophy an unserious discipline when it comes to human suffering, but it has never helped me respond to people in such a state as this.
But the Bible has. When Job spits verbal fire at God for the death of his family, he manifests a sort of rage that feels far more realistic than the calm and studied logic of the dispassionate Enlightenment atheist. Job’s invective against God is so fierce that one can imagine Job thinking that non-existence would be too good for Him. Indeed, for the psychotherapist Carl Jung, the suffering of Job cries out for an answer, and pushes the divine into a kind of psychological development that ends up with the death of Jesus on the cross as a supreme act of identification of God with human suffering. According to Jung, the cross is — as the title of his book makes plain — “The Answer to Job”.
At the very least, then, it is not that the so-called “problem of evil” is something Christianity runs away from. Indeed, it is the very point of Christianity to find a way of responding to human suffering in such way that has the sort of existential gravitas required by the challenge. That God — even understood symbolically as the sum total of human meaning — is also consumed by horrendous suffering and death, is a way to express of monumentality of what is at stake here. It’s not a “problem”. It’s far more than a mere “problem”.
That’s why the church feels like the right place for many of us to go and cry. The church is not an argument. It’s not a place for Socratic disputation. It’s a place where we can be broken, presided over by a man hanging broken on a wooden cross. And it formats our brokenness with a story that speaks of love as being ultimately greater that death, and as a triumph over even the most purposeless of human pain.
This is why human suffering does the exact opposite of what the Enlightenment atheist imagines it should do: it fills our churches, it doesn’t empty them. And not because it offers some cheap consolation that all will be ok. But for the opposite reason that it takes seriously the full weight and horror of human suffering. Indeed, church remains one of the few spaces in our culture in which we are allowed to acknowledge the existence of futile suffering without someone feeling so uncomfortable about it that they need to reassure us all that everything is going to be OK.
I have sat in church on my own quite a bit these last few weeks. I have a large wooden cross set up in the aisle. I am sitting with a dying man, keeping him company. And this feels like the proper place for me to express some sort of solidarity with those on ventilators, alone, struggling for breath; those receiving the news of the death of a mother, father, child; those being buried by men in protective clothing, no mourners there to say goodbye. I call it prayer. Atheists call it foolishness. And perhaps it is. But foolishness feels like the least of my worries these days.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe