The Glorious Groan of the Gospel

Scott Oliphint
In my last article, I hinted at one way that a Christian could respond to the "problem of evil." The problem, we will remember, is a distinctly Christian problem. As it is often charged, the problem has to do with the existence of the Christian God and the tremendous amount of evil and suffering in the world.

This does not mean, of course, that only Christians have a problem with suffering and evil. The opposite is the case. Every system of thought, and every individual, has to give some account of the problem of evil. Even Richard Dawkins, who wants to convince us of an atheistic world, nevertheless, has to incorporate some view of evil and suffering into that presumed world. For Dawkins, the world is one of "pitiless indifference," so the problem of evil is no real problem; it is simply a product of blind and merciless forces.

Last time I highlighted the problem in terms of "compatibility." As it is typically posed, there is a deep and abiding incompatibility between God's character and the character of evil such that one of the two "existences" just doesn't make sense. And since evil is so obvious and omnipresent, it stands to reason that we should give up our belief in the existence of God.

Dawkins' atheistic worldview doesn't suffer from such a malady. He has no Christian God in his belief system, so he simply relegates the problem of suffering to the "pitiless indifference" of his sad and lonely world. One of the problems with this way of attempting to address the issue, however, is that it is so personally, philosophically, historically and socially naïve. Notice how he puts it:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation...In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
This is personally naïve because, as I noted in an article here last March, Dawkins himself makes pronouncements on suffering and evil that cannot support his "pitiless indifference" system. It is philosophically naïve because the problem, for a few thousand years, has evoked anything but indifference. It is historically naïve because it ignores the almost inexhaustible literature that the problem has produced. And it is socially naïve because it pretends that our global systems of justice are nothing more than a pitiless waste of time. To put it mildly, it would be difficult to imagine a position that was more out of touch with the way things really are than the one Dawkins supposes. Dawkins's hope, no doubt, is that he can put forth a view that both negates Christianity and that supports his own Darwinian view. What it does, however, is show Dawkins' own position (and not suffering and evil) to be a figment of his own imagination.

There are hints of the illusory character of Dawkins' position embedded in his statement to the contrary. Why, for example, to use his own words, think that "some people are going to get lucky"?  What does it mean for one to be "lucky" in a universe of pitiless indifference? Dawkins might say that it means that some, for no reason whatsoever, get to avoid the suffering that others have to endure. But, clearly, this has to mean that it is better to avoid such suffering. And how can one make sense of what is "better" in the midst of cosmic indifference?  By definition, "indifference" is devoid of value judgments such as "better" or "worse." 

In other words, embedded in even the most extreme systems that try to incorporate the reality of suffering and evil is some kind of norm against which suffering and evil are seen to be abnormal. And this is as it should be; it is as it must be, unless one wants to (with Dawkins) build such an illusory world that, literally, no one can or does inhabit it (not even Dawkins himself).

It is not the case, as Dawkins states above, that "some people are going to get hurt," and he knows that. It is rather the case, as he previously states, that the amount of suffering is "beyond all decent contemplation." It is not that some get hurt. Everyone gets hurt, at various times, for long periods of time, and in multiple ways, until, finally, death. This is, then, a universal problem of incalculable proportions. It is a problem that everyone faces, and so it needs a proper response.

That proper response is the Christian response. Those who know the Christian response are not, thereby, relieved of all pain and suffering; neither are we given all of the answers that we might hope for. But it may help us, and others who are outside of Christ, to remember, and as we have opportunity, to communicate the following truths:

1. There is a deep-seated and virtually ineradicable sense in every person that suffering and evil are not "normal." From Mary Baker Eddy's proposal that evil is an illusion, to Dawkins' notion that it entails a lack of "luck," the abnormality of evil and suffering is ever-present. Why is this? It's not because suffering and evil are only marginal aspects of our daily lives. Suffering permeates our lives like the ticking of the clock; every second includes it, and future days on the calendar portend it. It is, in terms of our daily experience, and the experiences of all we know, and anyone we know of, constant. So, in the face of our universal, everyday experiences, we know that suffering and evil are not the way things ought to be. But this knowledge cannot be based on our empirical experience.

We know that, because, as covenant creatures made in the image of God, we know God. Those who know God, in Christ, have a divinely given and sanctioned view of it all, a view that will, if maintained, bring us to embrace a proper view of evil and suffering, so that we trust Him as we suffer. Those who know God, in Adam, seek to hold down the truth of God's character, given to them, and thus try other, in the end, irrational, ways to negotiate this serious problem. But, especially in matters that are so prevalent, so universal, and so personal, they simply cannot completely suppress the majestic truth that God gives -- what Paul calls "the glory of the immortal God," (Rom. 1:23). So, in any system that tries to deal with the horrendous evil and suffering that is before us in every breath, there is, even if "in the background," the truth of the glory of God, who Himself is the norm against which all of the evil and suffering is measured.

It is this "norm," the norm of God's character -- a norm that cannot be ignored --- that can help us understand something of the pervasive effects of evil. Here, then, is the first truth about evil and suffering. Evil and suffering are the consequences of a violation of God's holy and righteous character. Many children learn this at an early age. Question 14 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks and answers this: "Q. 14. What is sin? A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." But to transgress the law of God is to transgress His character. God's law, as His character, is "holy and righteous and good," (Rom. 7:12). To transgress that character is to bring that which is unholy, unrighteous, and evil into the world. 

The reason, then, that there is so much suffering and evil in the world is because there is so much transgression of God's holiness in the world. Or, to put it another way, God's character is so majestically and infinitely glorious that the transgression of that character is bound to bring a repletion of suffering to the world, and to us, since all of us are daily and intimately involved in the transgression of His glory. The incalculability of suffering should turn us to the incomprehensibility of God's glory, and man's part in trying to overturn that glory. As Christians, when we see and experience suffering, we should have a simultaneous response which includes the horror of the event, but which also includes our wonder at the majestic glory of God such that His wrath demands such suffering. One caveat: we should never confuse the amount or extent of suffering with a sin ratio. This was Jesus' point when some were thinking that certain tragedies had occurred because those who suffered deserved such things; "No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish," (Luke 13: 3, 5). This tells us, at least, that suffering and tragedies are meant to drive us to "repent," that is, to change our mind about sin and recognize it as an affront to a glorious and all-holy God, which affront deserves and brings punishment to all.

2. The second thing that we should remember, and help others to see, is that the appropriate response to suffering and to evil is repulsion. This is not the place to detail the depth and richness of God's own view of suffering and evil, but I am struck by the way in which the apostle Paul deals with it in Romans 8. Initially, he deals with "life and death" as it pertains to God's law (i.e., His character). He then proceeds to speak of the effects of sin as a "groaning." The whole creation groans (v. 22), we who have the Spirit also groan as we await the consummation (v. 23). Not only so, but, when we pray, the Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words (v. 26). This is, perhaps, the best and most descriptive way to articulate what suffering has done to God's creation; it has subjected us all to groaning. This groaning reaches its climax when we go before the Lord in prayer. Because of the suffering, because we wait for the consummation, because we are unable to make sense of it all, the Spirit, who Himself is God, groans in intercession. And "he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit," so that our groanings, through the Spirit, properly reach the throne room of heaven. To be reduced to groaning is the proper response to the futility that sin brought to God's good creation.

Paul then reaches back into eternity past, and moves to eternity future in order to assure us that, in the midst of the intensity of our groaning, God's plan will inevitably reach its consummate climax. And then he focuses all of that groaning, and all of the assurance that God's plan will not be thwarted, on the suffering of the Son. Surely, only Christianity is able to say, and mean, that the destruction of all suffering required the suffering of God Himself, in the person of His Son. He could have spared Him, but he didn't (Matt. 26:53). Not only did He not spare Him, but the Father was the One who delivered Him up for us all (v. 32).

God has not stood idly by as His creation groans, as we groan, as the Spirit groans in intercession. But He suffered, He died. Not only so, but as the Son, on the cross, quotes Psalm 22:1, "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?," He is also asking, with the Psalmist, in that same verse, "Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?"

Groaning is the proper response to suffering and evil. It is horrendous, it is abnormal, it is an affront to the holy glory of God. It is so despicable we can lose words to describe it. So, with creation, we groan. But it was only in the groaning of the Son that the groaning will one day cease. There can be no other adequate response to our groaning. There can be no higher, no more mysterious, no more transcendent response than this: that the Son of God groaned as the Father forsook Him, and spared Him not, that the Father would spare us the groaning of being eternally forsaken by Him. The problem of evil is the glorious groan of the gospel. Outside of that gospel, nothing remains but the prospect of groaning eternally.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).