This morning I received the devastating news that a good friend of mine lost his three-year-old son last night. There was no accident, no negligence, no one to blame: his son went to sleep and did not wake up the next morning. Our community of friends is reeling from the news, and none of us know quite what to do. Our prayers and words feel like cold comfort, and we’ve all spent hours crying, grieving, and raging.
As I look at my own children, the death of my friend’s child makes me acutely aware of their vulnerability and that, despite my best efforts, I can’t protect them. I pray for them and ask God to protect them, but God manifestly does not protect all children. What are to say to those who legitimately question the goodness and existence of God in the face of the suffering of the most vulnerable among us?
When I encounter atheism and agnosticism in ministry, only rarely is the source of it a cool and calculated assessment that God in all probability does not exist. Most often it is a visceral response to the suffering of the world, the scope and scale of which we are far more aware than any generation in human history.
Richard Bauckham has called it ‘protest atheism’, and even where other justifications for atheism are given, it seems to me that most often the overwhelming suffering of the world is most often the root issue. It is foundationally the ability to suffering and death to make ash out of our fondest dreams for the future and their ability to make the world appear cruel and meaningless that are most often defeaters for belief for non-Christians.
The Resources of the Gospel to Talk About Suffering and Death
The witness of the gospel is that death is an aberration. It is not a necessary feature of the world, nor was it there in the beginning. The goodness of being is primary, and evil is a falling away from that original goodness, a perversion and a corruption of that goodness. We were meant for eternal communion with the triune God. Death is a hostile and repulsive inversion of the original goodness of being.
And the witness of Scripture is that God hates it: ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26). That death is God’s enemy means that it is also the enemy of all Christians. As David Bentley Hart puts it, ‘Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces – whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance – that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred’.
Suffering and death have such power and sway over us that they are capable of reshaping and redefining our story. We think we know who we are until suffering and death invade and ravage us. We realize that everything and everyone we have loved will die, will be buried and forgotten in the rubble of history. But the witness of Scripture is that God has entered His creation in order to reverse this, to undo this, in the person of Jesus Christ.
In Christ’s resurrection and ascension, God has allowed humanity to be united to himself so that death will not be the final word on our lives. The final word for those who trust in Christ can be eternal communion with God and the community that belongs to Him in a re-formed heavens and earth, where enmity, death, and decay are no more. As Christians, we do not believe in ‘pie in the sky, by and by’, but in heaven coming to earth, renewing the face of the good earth that God made but which has become subject to futility, suffering, and death.
To return to the death of children. It is not for us to respond to those who are haunted and tormented by this, who find it impossible to believe in the God who allows this to happen by arguing that there is a ‘higher harmony’ from God’s perspective that makes their deaths somehow necessary or less horrific. Instead, we should, through tears, tell the story of God suffering with humanity in Christ, and about His triumph over the grave, which will one day be visible to all in the resurrection in which God will consummate His victory over the final enemy.
Tragedy is Real But it is Not Final
Christ declares in Rev. 1:18 that ‘I hold the keys to death and Hades’. Death is a door that we must all pass through, but for Christians it has lost its power to define us and position us. I end this post with a story told by Thomas Long in his important book What Shall We Say?
‘In the little village of Dachau, Germany, there is a museum of the Holocaust on the forbidding grounds of the old Nazi concentration camp. In the museum, there is a photograph so haunting that everyone who sees it, secular or religious, utters a kind of prayer. The photograph is of a mother and her little girl being marched to the gas chamber at Auschwitz. There is not one thing that the mother can do to stop what is happening, so she commits the only act of love she has left. She walks behind her daughter and places her hand over her daughter’s eyes, so she will not have to see where she is going.
Everyone who encounters this terrible photo cries out some version of ‘O God, do not let that be the last word. Do not let whatever that beast is, in us and history, to have the power to tell the final story of this little girl, of these people, or of any of us’. I am promising you, said Jesus in this parable [of the tares and the wheat], that this evil does not get the last word. Standing at the end of time is the just judge whose righteousness shines like the sun, the risen Christ. Whatever beast mauls its way through history, sending little girls to a cruel death, will be utterly destroyed’.
Jonathan Warren ministers to graduate students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship along with his wife Tish. He is finishing his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity at Vanderbilt University, and he and Tish are ordained Deacons in the Anglican Church in North America. Jonathan and Tish have two daughters and attend church at Christ Church Anglican.