First Response by Derek Walmsley

This e-mail will need to respond to your opening statement and to your first response.

However - a comment first about style. There's no need to use outrageous examples about disembowelling my father ( who has been dead for some years incidentally) to make your points. Your case would be stronger if the illustrations didn't distract from the point you're making!

Nevertheless you have made some very good points which call for a response.

As you suggest, I will not claim that AIDS is direct punishment for sin.

However I do believe that:

1. God's laws are good and that if we all lived by them society would be much better and there would be significantly less suffering (see the book "None of These Diseases" by S. I McMillen - not always a book that puts things exactly as I would like but nevertheless helpful).

2. Some suffering IS directly related to sin. If I drive too fast and crash then anyone would agree it's my fault.

But mostly it is the general sinfulness of everybody that causes the general suffering for everybody. We've all been in a class at school where some people have misbehaved and the teacher has kept the whole class in detention.

But my argument is more subtle. We are all sinners - the unfairness (which the Bible does recognise) comes from the way the bigger sinners seem sometimes to suffer less. Rabbi Harold Kushner lost his child and wrote a book called "When Bad Things Happen To Good People." I would argue that we are all tarnished with a degree of badness and the Bible's subtitle could be "When Good Things Happen To Bad People".

As regards free will, I do want to say that it is an issue, but not the whole case for the defence. In Romans chapter 1, Paul uses the phrase "gave them over" three times, describing a progression of worsening response on the part of mankind towards God. Because of their refusal to acknowledge God, He gives people over to the consequences of their attitude. He allows them to reach the consequences of their refusal to believe.

I want to affirm three things: 1. Suffering is real (as I said in the first e-mail). 2. God is good. 3. God is all-powerful. Many Christian theodicies deny one of these fundamental truths and get lost along the way. However, the Bible talks confidently about mankind's free will in the same breath as God's sovereignty. It seems that man's freedom is somehow part of God's omniscience and that the two are not mutually exclusive. There isn't space here to examine this in much depth so I recommend "Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility" by Don Carson (v.heavy reading indeed!) and "The Enigma of Evil" by John Wenham.

You write: "Many Christians dedicate their lives to trying to bring about a world where everybody chooses good of their own free will, so they clearly believe such a world is both desirable and possible."

This is interesting. (It's desirable and possible that Bradford City win the Premiership this season, but although it isn't going to happen the team will still try!). What Christians believe is that the world is fallen, that all of us are sinners and that something should be done about it. We also believe that all human attempts at fixing the problem are doomed to failure, and that God in Christ has done something about restoring the broken relationship.

The problem is at our end but He has come from his end to fix things at our end.

(Hence Christmas...)

Since Jesus came we have this waiting period until his return, during which the world remains fallen but Christians are called to live as Jesus did and continue the work of restoration in a wider sense. So we believe that the sort of world we seek won't happen until Jesus returns but that we should nevertheless work towards that end.

In your second e-mail you say: "Christian doctrine is that resurrected bodies will be material, physical bodies, able to be touched. So your statement is bad news for people who think there will no longer be pain when they are resurrected. The Gospels state that the resurrected, material body of Jesus still had wounds which could be touched, yet presumably Jesus was not in pain and not suffering. How can this be, when you argue that pain is God's gift to warn us of the effect of precisely such wounds as Jesus had? Was Jesus' resurrected body capable of walking this Earth and not feel pain? If so, why did God not create this world, so that we also can walk the Earth and not feel pain?"

This raises two points: 1. Resurrected bodies. The Bible plainly teaches that we will have resurrected bodies that will be in some way different to our earthly bodies (1 Corinthians 15) and this is illustrated by the way Jesus was able to pass through walls and yet eat food to demonstrate the reality of his resurrection.

2. Pain after death. The Bible also teaches that at the end of time (and presumably in heaven) there will be no more pain or mourning or sadness. The descriptions of Jesus after the resurrection nowhere state categorically that he felt no pain as you say, however we might make that assumption. The distinction seems to be between the two states of existence, before and after death. This world - with it's suffering - somehow prepares us for the next world, where there is to be no suffering.

In this context can I recommend another book for further reading: "Mission and Meaningless" by Peter Cotterell. His thesis is that the suffering in this world can only be understood in the wider context of a better life beyond death. He also looks at the alternative answers to the suffering in the world, such as Marxism and Islam.

In the meantime I want to return to the Bible as the best place to find some answers, although the Bible itself states that our present understanding will be very limited: "we see a dim image" ("through a glass, darkly" in older translations) according 1 Corinthians 13. I want to offer three Biblical clues to the problem of suffering.

Firstly, in the third verse of the opening chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1), it says "And God said, let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness." This isn't the place to debate the literal status of the creation story, but what is fascinating here is that God creates light - but not darkness. There is a sense in which darkness (which is often symbolic of evil) is there but not created by God.

CS Lewis has suggested that the Devil is a non-person - not that he doesn't exist but that he is in some sense a totally negative being. The description of the first act of creation seems to suggest that it is an inevitable by-product of creation that there will be "darkness". At the end of the description of creation Genesis says that God looked at "all that he had made, and it was very good" - but lurking in the background is this thing that he didn't make, but which is there as a consequence of a good creation.

Karl Barth, probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century tried to explain this, saying that creation is God's "yes" but there has to be a flipside "no" - not made by God but nevertheless present because of the "yes". This has to be my one sentence summary of a difficult and controversial approach but it gives us a clue to what may always remain a mystery.

Secondly: your web-site is very keen on the book of Job - and you quote from it in your opening statement. Job is a remarkable book indeed. It lifts the curtain on heaven in a highly stylised way (so we should be careful about quoting short sections out of the whole context). The thrust of the book is that Job suffers and his friends give him poor comfort. They defend God in the traditional manner, but eventually God himself puts in an appearance and basically says that they're all wrong. Job's not suffering because he's bad (as his friends have suggested). The twist is that Job never gets to know exactly what God had been up to and why he is suffering. It's sufficient for him to know that God is there.

This is my own experience. I have known suffering but it is sufficient for me to know that God is there. I don't understand, but I'm not God and it's best left to him. (as someone said: "Most of us like to pray to God in an advisory capacity. But he knows what he's doing.") I suppose this goes back to the "eye of faith" argument I mentioned in my opening statement.

Thirdly, it's interesting to note how Jesus responds on one of the very few occasions when he deals with suffering at a theoretical level. (Mostly he deals with suffering at a practical level by healing the sick and raising the dead - yet this is always with compassion and sensitivity).Jesus is asked (Luke 13) about Pilate murdering devout Jews who were offering sacrifices.

The implied question is "how come these good people were killed?" Of course the commonly-held view in those days (as sometimes now) was that if you suffered it was because you'd done wrong. That was the view of Job's comforters mentioned above.

Jesus response is to refer to another even more random tragedy in which a tower collapsed and killed 18 people. Then he says: "Do you suppose that this proves that they were worse that all the other people living in Jerusalem? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did." (Good News Bible) In other words, dry debate about suffering will not get you anywhere. What matters is that you respond to God's call.

I've found writing this second e-mail a challenge, not least because of space restrictions (this is about 1500 words) which is why I've mentioned some books. I'll recommend some more in my third and final e-mail.

Steven Carr's Opening Statement

Mr. Walmsley's Opening Statement

Steven Carr's First Response

Steven Carr's Final Response

Mr. Walmsley's Final Response

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