This is my last e-mail in this debate and I would like to thank Steven for this opportunity to discuss these very important issues, issues which are even bigger than life and death. I hope that other readers will read both our viewpoints with interest and come to their own conclusions.
The strange thing about suffering, of course, is that two people can suffer in exactly the same way to it and respond differently. Both might experience the death of their child, the loss of a leg, sudden bankruptcy, or walk painfully through the Nazi death camps. Yet one person might respond with bitterness towards God and the other with faith and trust.
I have two consequential thoughts. One is that I believe God does not quickly condemn the first response, because he understand suffering in his own experience, as I shall come back to in a moment.
The other thought is that perhaps suffering isn't the all-important issue we think it might be. If two people can respond so differently to the same event, there must be something deeper behind their behaviour.
This was my point in my opening e-mail. Perhaps the person of faith "sees" the issue completely differently from the person without faith. We bring our preconceptions to the issue. Of course it will further shape those preconceptions, as each of life's experiences shape our concepts of the world, but somehow Christians seem to look at this whole thing differently from atheists.
I want to strongly recommend the book "Evil and The Cross" by the French writer Henri Blocher. One of his useful little phrases is "The thorn in reason's flesh". I can't explain the depth of Blocher's arguments here, but in summary: Reason demands an explanation for suffering. If (as Steven seems to be saying) we live in a totally unpredictable universe with no-one in control, then life has no real hope. Life is fragile and dangerous and death is the end. Suffering is real so what hope is there? The only hope is that God is good and bigger than the sorry lives we lead. (there is much more to Blocher's thesis but I will return to that too).
To put this another way, the Bible's explanation for the world's problems is to blame human sin. The description of the "Fall" in Genesis 3 describes man's desire to be like God. It says that the serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit "..you will be like God knowing good and evil. When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband."
The desire to have wisdom like God is actually described here as the first sin. This is the same concept as the story of Job to which we have referred in previous e-mails. God basically says "Look, I am God. You really won't understand right now, just trust me." It's the same approach that Jesus took when explaining suffering, as I pointed out in my previous e-mail.
I don't have an adequate explanation for suffering. (There, I've said it!). No-one does. Not the Christian or the Muslim. All the athiest can say is "That's just the way the world randomly is". None of us can put it in a box and say we've got it all worked out.
Time for a personal interlude: in February 1981 doctors gave my mother 2 weeks to live with lung cancer. She lived for a month, struggling to breathe. My Father, brother and I took it in turns to spend the night sharing the room with her to care for her needs. Each breath was difficult. She suffered physical agonies and we suffered emotional ones as she did so. She died after a month. This was less than two weeks before we learned that my wife was expecting a baby - my mother's first grandchild, which she would have loved to see. I wondered about God's timing.
My Father died 18 months later after a stroke left him like a vegetable for several weeks. We went so see him every day, an empty shell, as he lay in a hospital bed.
I was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1991. Two years later, enjoying my work and my family, my wife began to suffer blurred vision. A brain scan revealed a meningioma - a "benign" tumour on the lining of the brain. The lump was golf-ball sized and in the very middle of her head.
Brain operations are always a last resort, of course, but my wife had to have two. The tumour was bound-up in facial nerves. Although it was completely removed, she effectively lost the use of the right side of her head - 100% hearing loss in one ear and although her eye could see, it could not move or blink. To protect it, doctors have since sewn the lids together.
At the time I researched meningiomas. They happen to only one in 22,000 people each year. Most sufferers are elderly, most such tumours are in reasonably accessible parts of the skull. Why my wife?
My testimony is that my faith is somehow stronger because of the suffering I have experienced. I can't really tell you why. God was somehow closer in all this than I thought possible beforehand, Others may have found that to be different for them, I know. But what I am saying is that suffering is not the be-all-and-end-all decisive issue for belief in an all-good God.
The final thing to say in this debate is that God does understand. This is not a glib statement, but a truth borne out in scripture and in my experience. Some years ago, while at a large Christian conference, I saw a tiny baby sleeping in a pushchair. I had never seen that child or her family before. At that moment I was overwhelmed with a feeling of God's love for that baby and found myself in floods of tears. The parents told me afterwards that she had been recently examined by doctors who told them she was blind and deaf.
There will be those who jump up at this point and say one of two things: 1. "You probably picked up some subconscious signal from the parents." But actually I had to ask around to discover who the parents were.
Or 2. "The fact the baby was suffering shows God doesn't care." But actually my tears suggested otherwise. There was a reason - but we don't know this side of heaven what it was.
The Bible demonstrates the truth of God's care too. If Christian belief about God is correct then the one person who chose the time and place of his own birth elected to be born into desperate circumstances. Jesus was born to a poor unmarried mother in a dirty stable in a land occupied by foreign troops. Shortly afterwards his family had to become refugees abroad to save his life.
His death says the same, and more. He was arrested by his own religious leaders, underwent an unjust trial, deserted by his friends. His death was demanded by crowds who had claimed to follow him a week earlier. A murderer was released while he was sentenced to death. He was beaten, whipped and cruelly mocked, carried his own instrument of death out to the city rubbish dump and killed by the worst method the Romans could devise. As he hung there he forgave those who mocked and killed him.
The resurrection says that death wasn't the end, and for us there is hope beyond the pains and agonies of this life. There is something the atheist's worldview does not offer. There is hope.
Steven Carr's Opening Statement
Mr. Walmsley's Opening Statement
Steven Carr's First Response
Mr. Walmsley's First Response
Steven Carr's Final Response
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