Saturday, December 29, 2012


In graduate studies at New College Berkeley, I took a course on Job from the Bible scholar Francis I. Andersen. He let two assignments determine our grade. At the outset was a short essay about the suffering of the innocent. The final was to be a fully developed argument defending our personal response to this question, “Did the Lord answer Job?” With his permission I wrote an interpretive summary in drama called The Lord Answered Job, which so impressed him that he mentioned it in that year’s commencement address. Recently I put the drama on my website to be read or performed by anyone interested.

I had been reading Job on the day of the Connecticut massacre. That tragedy gave the question “Why do the innocent suffer?” a fresh context. My initial answer for Dr. Andersen’s class has not changed: God makes the best possible choice, to intervene or not to intervene, by thoroughly evaluating the direct and indirect effects resulting from the infinitesimally complex interplay of the following elements:
  • Every single person involved or in any way touched by the incident in question.
  • The impact of every past prayer, present choice, or future action of these individuals on all others with whom they are connected now or will be later.
  • His omniscient decision to keep the world existing as it is until an ultimately unfavorable balance of evil over good makes prolonging its potential history unjustifiable.
  • Each direct or indirect effect that the aftermath of the earthly incident in question will have on the environment and inhabitants of the afterlife.
  • Any other interactive elements that God would need take into consideration for His decision. (If others come to mind, please mention them to me in a comment.)
“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The film classic It’s a Wonderful Life was based on this idea—how one person’s life and actions crucially affect everyone and everything around them. More recently the book Five People You Meet in Heaven—also made into a movie—expounded this same theme. Somehow, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28).

When Abraham asked God, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25), he already knew the answer. We may not see how the intertwined relationships of people, or the ongoing effects of their choices, relate to specific tragedies. But when the innocent suffer, we can be sure that God chose the best of all possible bad choices. Yes, BAD CHOICES!

In an environment where people can behave selfishly, an array of bad possibilities are all God has to choose from, unless He decides to cancel free will. Since He won’t do that, all His decisions must deal with the reality of a fallen race living in a world groaning with earthquake and storm under the curse of human sin. Instead of abandoning this sinful mess, God employs His love and wisdom to make, from among all the bad alternatives, exactly the right long-term selection in every situation.

But God did not hang aloof from this knot of interwoven human suffering. The Incarnation is His ultimate answer to our questions about His allowance of suffering. God knows exactly how it feels to be an innocent human being suffering cruelty at the hands of insane powers and fanatical injustice. His divinity diminished none of the pain that cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?(Mark 15:34). His pain did not dim the divine love behind His prayer for the persecutors who mocked Him, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

As far as the suffering of the innocent or the injustice of some of our own pains, God is patient with our doubts about the rightness of His choosing to let them happen. After we reach the afterlife, He has an eternity to explain His reasons. But it might absorb a few eons of our heavenly bliss for God to unravel for our finite understanding what was obvious to Him in the fragment of a nanosecond. He could start with the closest and end with most distant contingencies related to the event in question, showing us one-by-one the weight of each in the cosmic balance of good over evil. When the last interconnected item is measured, we will invariably sigh that long interjection of acknowledgment that C. S. Lewis said would be one of the most familiar utterances heard in Heaven: “Oh-h-h. . . .”

Over the years, I’ve had many why questions I wanted to ask God someday. But as I grow older, they become fewer—not because they’ve decreased in number, but because I’ve increased in trust that the God of all the earth will do right. And if there remains any pains, any open wounds, any vestiges of grief, any tearful sorrows, He has already promised to wipe them out so thoroughly that they will hurt us no more (Revelation 21:4). Beyond the astronomically long explanation we might receive for our questions and doubts, such an ultimate and absolute comfort for affliction is as much as can be provided by God’s perfect love and wisdom, given the reality of unalterably interrelated human choices and actions in a fallen world.

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