Like all the major arguments against God, particularly the Christian God, the problem of pain has been with us for thousands of years; and yet, when it comes to this specific argument, there is a great irony. In the early church and Middle Ages, when disease and mortality rates were much higher and the overall level of pain and suffering more acute, there was far less outcry against God and far less use of the problem of pain as a means of disproving his existence or denying his biblical traits.
It was not until the Enlightenment that the problem of pain became a major sticking point, and not until the modern world that it became the argument one most often hears leveled against God and Christianity. In fact, I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that those groups that are the most shielded from suffering—think well-educated, upper-middle-class white Americans and Europeans—tend to be the ones who trumpet most loudly the problem of pain. It seems that the more our pain decreases, the more our sense of entitlement and outrage increases, rather than our humility and gratitude.
But the irony goes deeper than this. The rise in the strength and shrillness of the problem of pain argument not only tracks with a general lessening in human suffering; it tracks as well with the slow ascendancy of the Enlightenment God of the Philosophers. Unlike the God of the Bible, who takes an active role in the affairs of nature and of man, who is holy and merciful, and who loves some things and hates others, the God of the Philosophers is more of a hypothetical construct, a divine idea whose chief, if only, function is to serve as a theoretical stay against infinite regress.
Although Bacon, Descartes, and Spinoza—the three philosophers who laid the foundation for that Enlightenment thinking that would reach its climax in Locke, Hume, and Kant—disagreed on a number of key issues, their various methods and theories all worked toward the same effect of depersonalizing God. Yes, their God exists and he may even have power, but he is not the covenant God of Israel, nor is he the holy God who cannot have sin in his presence, nor is he the jealous but compassionate God who weeps over adulterous Jerusalem, nor is he the courageous God who enters our world as a man, nor is he the self-sacrificing God who gave his Son for the life of the world.
At this point, careful readers may have spotted a seeming contradiction in my treatment of the problem of pain. Did I not say a moment ago that the problem of pain only becomes a problem when we are dealing with the God of the Bible? And does not Hume all but admit that the deistic God of the Philosophers—on account of his not embodying or reflecting anything like human standards of “justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude”—is relatively immune from the problem of pain?
Well, yes. But here is where one layer of irony gets inscribed over another. Critics of Christianity since the Enlightenment—especially the new atheists of today—want to have their cake and eat it too. They first reduce the biblical God to the God of the Philosophers, and then turn around and attack that emasculated God for not coming to their rescue. They remind me of countless Americans I know who proclaim loudly and continuously that the government needs to get off of their backs; but then the second the slightest thing goes wrong, they complain even more loudly, “Where was the government, and why didn’t it protect me?”
Let me state this in a different way. Most philosophers and theologians since the Enlightenment throw around words like omni-
potent, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, and omniscient without investing them with anything close to their full biblical meaning. They are just terms: adjectives to describe a hypothetical deity rather than verbs offering a glimpse into the cosmic activity of a creative God intimately involved in his creation. When they speak of a loving God, they do not mean the triune God of orthodox Christianity in which the eternal Father has eternally loved the eternal Son; they only mean love as a vague idea, an impersonal Platonic Form. Love in the Bible has little to do with some philosopher’s abstract notion of “niceness” or “fair play.” The love that we encounter in Genesis and then in the Gospels is a dynamic divine force that moves out of itself—first to create the world, and then to enter it.
Perhaps the best way to get behind the competing languages spoken by the Enlightenment philosopher and the orthodox Christian is through a story I once heard about Mother Teresa. In the story, whose source I can no longer locate, a self-satisfied businessman approaches Mother Teresa and asks her a theoretical question that reflects perfectly the impersonal nature of the God of the Philosophers: “Where is God when a child is dying in the streets?” Rather than answer him in terms of his reductive view of God, Mother Teresa boldly transcends the narrow limits of his abstract, uninvolved deity to offer a glimpse of a truly compassionate God who literally feels and shares our pain: “God is with that child.”
But she does not end the dialogue there. Her God, the God of the Bible, is more real than the philosopher’s God of the businessman and, as such, he has the right and the power to make demands upon our lives, to hold us accountable. “The real question,” she goes on to say, “is where are you?” We become like the gods we serve: cold, removed, and self-protective, or filled with compassion and empathy. The great hospitals, orphanages, charity houses, and universities were not built by atheists preaching a religion of humanity, nor were they built by Enlightenment philosophers dispensing abstract notions of love. They were built by Christians actively serving and loving an actively serving and loving Savior.