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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Is Heaven Worth It?

I don’t want anyone to suffer anymore. And if the suffering of little children is needed to complete the sum total of suffering required to pay for the truth, I don’t want that truth, and I declare in advance that all the truth in the world is not worth the price!” (Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov)

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov levels a powerful charge against God. Ivan is an intellectual skeptic who sees a world full of suffering and injustice. Particularly offensive is the cruelty done to innocent children. What purpose can such evil possibly serve? Where is God in this mean old world? Ivan wants to know. After graphically recounting the horrors of a young girl mercilessly abused by her parents, Ivan concludes that whatever reason God may have had, the price is too high.

To human sensibilities the existence of cruelty and suffering is a scandalous indictment against Omnipotence. It is what drove Einstein to reject the God of the Bible for “Spinoza’s God”—the non-personal principle of reason, harmony, and cosmic order. Throughout the centuries, the “problem of evil” has led countless others to conclude that God is negligent, impotent, or non-existent.

Consider media mogul Ted Turner.

Until the age of 15, Ted was a self-described Christian who attended Christian school, studied the Bible, prayed for one hour every day, and even planned on becoming a missionary. But that all changed after his younger sister succumbed to terminal lupus. Despite the prayers of family and friends for healing, Ted’s sister died after a painful five-year struggle. Unable to reconcile his sister’s death with his Christian faith, Turner turned his back on God. As one observer has noted, “It's not so much that Turner doesn't believe in God as he doesn't want to give God, who allowed his sister to be crushed by disease, the satisfaction of recognition.”

Ted Turner believes that if God exists, He is a detached, impersonal Governor who is aloof about human suffering—an un-God who may be all-powerful, but not all-good; and for that reason undeserving of recognition, much less human devotion.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has a somewhat different view. Rabbi Kushner trusts in God’s infinite goodness, but the pervasive existence of human misery and injustice is evidence that He has little to no power over these things; otherwise, they wouldn’t be so rife and unmitigated. Like Ted Turner, Rabbi Kushner came to his belief after his own personal tragedy: the agonizing death of his teenage son.

The classic response to these positions goes something like this: A perfect God created a perfect world, which included, necessarily, free will and morally responsible agents. Thus, evil was not created by God, or the result of divine negligence or incompetence, but it was a consequence of choices made by moral agents in the unfettered exercise of their will.

That argument offers us a certain intellectual satisfaction. Still, there can be a lingering notion that it is little more than a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to cover embarrassment for a God who, in our lowest moments, seems an indifferent deity. Yes, there are times we need more than clever logic.

Several years ago, some friends lost their 12-year-old daughter to cancer. During her last five years, “Claire” had been in and out of hospitals, receiving radiation treatments and chemotherapy for an inoperable brain tumor. Despite the impassioned prayers of family and friends, improvements in her condition were only temporary, necessitating frequent trips back to the hospital.

As her condition deteriorated, the doctors decided that Claire should live out her remaining time at home. Her last days where far from peaceful. The pain from her cancer-ridden body was so intense that large doses of narcotics gave her little relief. Her parents became increasingly fervent in prayer, yet the pain was so intolerable that the only alternative for lasting relief was to sever her spinal nerve. Two weeks later Claire died.

We're all familiar with those "name it and claim it” verses of the Bible. But somehow the joy of those passages doesn't jump off the page in situations like Claire’s. Like the disciples who asked Jesus about the cause of the blind man’s blindness, we want to know what went wrong. Did we fail to pray hard enough? Did we not believe strong enough? Are our sins too great? Or do we conclude, as Ted Turner and Rabbi Kushner, that God is not all he’s cracked up to be.

Two months before her death, Claire made a decision to be baptized. But what should have been an occasion for rejoicing turned into turmoil for her family. You see, Claire’s church required baptism by immersion, no exceptions—an impossible requirement considering Claire's frail condition. In frustration her parents approached another church across town that agreed to baptize her in a less traditional fashion. The resulting ceremony was a moving testimony to hundreds of witnesses of this young girl's courage and commitment to the Lord.

The apostle Paul’s afflictions, primarily his imprisonments, provided the opportunity for writings that would become the Magna Carta of the Christian faith. But perhaps more significantly, his trials were evidence of his sincerity and love, evidence that was essential to gain the credibility and acceptance of those he had previously persecuted.

For Paul, it is clear how God used his adversity to advance the kingdom. But for Claire, God’s purpose is not as obvious. Perhaps He wanted to demonstrate the unshakeable quality of child-like faith to a world in desperate need of hope. Maybe He wanted to awaken a dying church out of its misplaced focus on legalism. Perhaps He sought to secure Claire’s place in his eternal family at an early age. Perhaps.

At this point we must admit we don't know. And even if we did, it would not attenuate our feelings of loss this side of eternity. So where do we go for comfort? How do we reconcile our lingering yearning for a world turned right side up.

If Paul’s hardships were necessary to win over beleaguered Christians skeptical of his motivations, what about God? What did He need to win the love of His created beings? Certainly He could have overwhelmed them with staggering displays of power. But He had already done that through the general revelation of creation. If that wasn’t enough, the chosen nation of Israel experienced God’s providence and protection, as well as some pretty spectacular miracles during its history.

Yet God’s blessings, frequent manifestations, and dramatic wonders had no lasting effect on Israel’s love for Him. To the contrary, although God’s marvelous favors produced awe and respect (and sometimes fear), they did little to engender enduring love. Clearly something else was needed.

At the heart of love is other-centeredness. From small acts of kindness to the laying down of life for another, love is lived out and authenticated through personal sacrifice. It is thus, in the Incarnation, we find the highest expression of divine love. For there we find a God who refused to exempt Himself from the stinging injustice of a world gone wrong. For a brief moment in history, God set aside His omnipotence to be the Son of Man—the Advocate who presents God to man and man to God.

Making Himself as one of us, God invaded the world, not as sovereign king but as a helpless infant. Associating with the downcast and outcast and ministering to the least and the last, He was shunned by His brothers, rejected by His countrymen, convicted on phony charges, tried by an illegitimate assembly, sentenced to an unjust death, spat upon, beaten, cursed, scourged, nailed to a tree, and, crying out in anguish, killed in infamy with common criminals as the hand of his Father was withheld. If anyone knows, from first-hand experience, about injustice it is Him.

Because He walked in our shoes, He is the only deity who can understand our pain, sympathize with our suffering, and be patient with our questioning hearts. The Incarnation is the shocking and irrefutable display of inexhaustible Love.

We can join Ivan Karamazov in railing against God for this mean ol’ world, or we can consider the injustice He endured and wonder why He subjected himself to it. Could He have taken a less costly course to set the world right?

The short answer is yes. But only in a sin-scarred world can the infinite dimensions of God’s love be expressed through the nail-pierced hands of a risen Savior. Such is the love of Him who silently listens to all the charges Ivan makes against him; then, without a word, moves over to his accuser and kisses him.

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