Reasons to Believe

Thinking about Suffering and Death, Part 1

Take it from me, here are two words you never want to hear come out of your doctor’s mouth—“brain cancer!”

Last May, hall of fame baseball catcher Gary Carter was diagnosed with this dreaded illness. When I read the sad news that Carter’s most recent MRI revealed new tumors in his brain, I felt a deep sense of empathy for him and his suffering. Unfortunately, just a couple of weeks later, in February of this year, Carter died of the cancer.

Back in 2003, I too suffered a serious brain illness. Initially my doctors thought it was brain cancer. Fortunately for me, the six spots (or lesions) in my brain were caused by a bacterial infection, not cancer. My doctors treated me with heavy doses of antibiotics and I was subsequently cured. Though this was one of the most difficult experiences of my life and one I wouldn’t want to repeat, this illness nevertheless served to teach me lessons about suffering that I might never have learned otherwise.

Suffering tends to teach us things in an up close and personal way. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes difficult to relate to the suffering of others unless you have suffered in a similar way. When you have borne a similar burden you carry a personal connection that seems to allow more easily for the development of empathy. Maybe suffering then is necessary for human beings to learn critical moral and spiritual truths and to develop accompanying virtues.

People often ask why a good God would allow human beings to suffer. In fact, the problem of pain and suffering (theodicy) is arguably the greatest challenge to the truth of Christian theism. But if suffering is the only way or perhaps the best way to move people toward ultimate truth and virtue, then God’s goodness is compatible with pain and suffering (this is known as the “greater good” response to theodicy).

Obviously, people can still ask why certain folks suffer when they don’t appear to be the direct beneficiary of the good that can come from sorrow. Or people can ask why there is so much suffering in the world. From a Christian apologetics standpoint there is no one response that explains, let alone solves, all of the problems connected to suffering. But the Christian response that God has dealt decisively with the problem of human suffering and evil through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ appears to be a far greater explanation than other worldviews offer.

The Gospel offers humankind hope and purpose because the Lord Jesus Christ suffered with us and for us. The historic Christian claim to the believer is that the suffering one endures in this life cannot compare with the glory that will be revealed in the next life.

For more on the Christian response to theodicy, see chapters 13 and 14 of my forthcoming book 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012).

Subjects: Philosophy of Religion, Problem of Evil