Tag Archives: Suffering

Is Christianity intended to provide you with health, wealth and happiness?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Is Christianity supposed to provide you with health and wealth?

Consider post on the Gospel Coalition.

It says:

I am a pastor in a small village about 500 kilometers west of Nairobi—in Kenya’s sugar belt region. For the better part of my adult life, I was a Pentecostal/charismatic/Word of Faith preacher. But the day came when my faith made no sense at all.

I first heard the gospel as a young man, though the message contained false advertising about a Jesus who would meet all my needs and fulfill all my dreams. Remaining unsaved would lead to a life of misery, sickness, and poverty, I was told. It appeared logical, then, to embrace Christ and step into a world of limitless blessing.

I wanted all God had for me, and I zealously rose to become a herald of the message I had received—which I later learned is Word of Faith teaching some call the “prosperity gospel.” I knew of no other gospel. I believed God was good, and this meant nothing uncomfortable came from him.

I learned to deal with Satan for causing anything negative in my life. Spiritual warfare was ingrained in me. As part of the “God class,” as Word of Faith teachers say, I had absolute authority to create my own world through positive thinking and faith-based confessions.

I believed God’s will included health and wealth, which I could call into existence by faith. Anything less should be repudiated. If all else failed, I could engage the heavenly language of angels—praying in tongues—to bypass Satan and the hosts of darkness.

Do you believe any of that?

Well, the pastor goes on to explain all the terrible things that happened to him – and these are the most difficult experiences that can happen to anyone. How did he respond to God allowing all these bad things happening to him?

Well, pretty badly at first:

Without answers, we were dismayed with God, whose ways no longer made sense to us. Though faith became a mirage, we kept up appearances, trying to pretend we didn’t despair. Yet inwardly we felt doubtful, hopeless, even cursed.

How could we reconcile these bad things with a good God? Our Word of Faith teaching instructed us to dismiss Job’s suffering as a consequence of his negative confession: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away” (Job 1:21). But how could we make sense of Paul himself falling sick (Gal. 4:13) and yet rejoicing in his afflictions (2 Cor. 12:10)? How could we continue to reconcile this portrait with modern “super-apostles” who market health and wealth in their books, DVDs, and mega-meetings?

In my faith crisis and anger at God, I vowed to quit the ministry. I felt like a fraud for preaching a “gospel” that did not work. God had become an enigma, and faith a labyrinth. Yet the passage of time and the routine activities of Churchianity soothed our restless minds—for a while.

But then this happened:

My friend asked me to translate in Swahili as Billy delivered a message in English. The topic, “justification by faith alone through the imputed righteousness of Christ,” sounded ridiculous to me. Onstage for one awkward hour, I forced myself to deliver words I believed were unbiblical and heretical. But the sovereign Lord worked in my heart, calling forth reason through an inner witness to the truths proclaimed. The Holy Spirit planted sufficient doubt about the system I’d defended.

Over the next three weeks I felt tortured by God for my errors, which became apparent with every Bible text I once thought supported my beliefs. The same verses now looked different, affirming Billy’s message.

[…]Though I didn’t understand the fine points of theology, my conversion was decisive. Enthralled by Christ, who bids his own to “take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), I now felt that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

I guess I should say the obvious – I have no idea how you would get the idea that you can coerce God into giving you health, wealth and prosperity. This is such an immature view of God. Anyone who has ever been involved in any kind of serious enterprise knows that the best people are the ones who stick to the mission through thick and thin, and just keep on fighting through the hunger, suffering, sickness and other setbacks. And that’s everywhere in the Bible. For goodness sake: Jesus was obedient to God to the point of suffering torture and giving his life as a sacrifice to save others from their rebellion against God. How do you get health, wealth and happiness from that?

But more than that, this makes me think of when I was young and first exposed to the Christian message. Far from being something that pushed me away from Christianity, the Bible’s message of suffering with honor, and doing the moral thing regardless of happy outcomes, really resonated with me. It is very real world. In this world, it is rare that doing the right thing works out for you. In fact, there should be some area of your life where you are missing something that you really want and need. Consider that a joy, because when you are poor and hungry sad and meek, that’s when you are most like the people in the Bible who had to experience these things while remaining faithful and obedient. For me, not being married and not being a father is my empty hole that will never be filled. I get asked about it a lot by my co-workers, and they know I am not happy about it, but they also know I am still faithful even if my needs are not met.

These are my two favorite passages in the Bible:

1 Corinthians 4:2:

1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.

3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.

4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.

Matthew 5:13:

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden;

15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from suffering and evil. That’s part of the normal Christian life. And how you respond to lack and suffering and evil is a powerful signal to the watching world about what Christianity is all about.

From a practical point of view, I do recommend making good decisions to prepare for potential troubles and tragedies. If you are careful to make yourself defensible to unexpected setbacks, not only will you be able to endure them, but you will be strong to help others endure them, too. The goal is to not let go of God because unmet desires and dashed expectations. A wise person understands that everyone has a breaking point, but with a little wisdom and preparation, you can build your defenses so that the stress that might break someone less prepared does not break you.

William Lane Craig debates Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God

Two bears fight it out, and may the best bear win!
Two bears fight it out, and may the best bear win!

This is one of the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has done in my opinion. (The other three are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates).

Sinnott-Armstrong is very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics. So if you are looking for a good first debate to watch, this is it!

The MP3 file is here.

The video is here:

There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church, this is the one to start with.

The debaters:

The format:

  • WSA: 15 minutes
  • WLC: 15 minutes
  • Debaters discussion: 6 minutes
  • Moderated discussion: 10 minutes
  • Audience Q&A: 18 minutes
  • WSA: 5 minutes
  • WLC: 5 minutes

SUMMARY:

WSA opening speech:

Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)

God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)

He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically

Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God

His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument

Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines

The inductive argument from evil:

  1.  If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  2.  There is evil in the world.
  3.  Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.

Defining terms:

  • Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
  • Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling

God could prevent tooth decay with no pain

God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer

Responses by Christians:

  • Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
  • Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
  • Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
  • Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
  • Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
  • God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
  • We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
  • Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good

WLC opening speech:

Summarizing Walter’s argument

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.

Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.

The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.

Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.

  1. the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
  2. Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
  3. Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous

Christian doctrines from 2.:

  • The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
  • Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
  • For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives

Arguing for God in 3.

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. God exists
  3. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Four reasons to think that God exists (premise 2 from above):

  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the fine-tuning argument
  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil

Should we expect to know what God’s reason is for allowing evil and suffering?

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

Here is an article by Steven Cowan about the problems of evil and suffering.

Intro:

The problem of evil is no doubt the most serious challenge to belief in God. Even religious believers find it troubling that evil exists in the world—and so much evil! It is puzzling, to say the least, that an all-powerful, absolutely good being would allow evil to exist in his creation. And yet it does. Evil and suffering exist and they are often overwhelming in their magnitude.

Now let’s find out what a noseeum is, and how it relates to the existence of evil and suffering:

However, perhaps God’s existence is incompatible with a certain kind of evil that exists. For example, the atheist William Rowe has argued that God’s existence is inconsistent with pointless or gratuitous evil. By “pointless evil,” Rowe means evil that does not and cannot serve a greater good. And Rowe believes that there is such pointless evil in the world. He thus concludes that God does not exist. Rowe’s argument may be simply stated as follows:

  1. If God exists, there would be no pointless evil.
  2. There is pointless evil.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

[…]But, is there pointless evil in the world? Rowe thinks there is. To show that there is pointless evil, Rowe introduces what he calls the “noseeum inference.” Like the pesty little bugs that some readers may be familiar with, a “noseeum” is something that you cannot see—it is a “no-see-um.” And a noseeum inference is a conclusion drawn on the basis of what one does not see. The basic structure of all noseeum inferences looks like this:

  1. I cannot see an x.
  2. Therefore, there probably is no x.

We all make noseeum inferences everyday of our lives. Every time I go to cross a street, I look both ways and I step out into the street only after I “no-see-um” a car coming.

[…]Rowe applies this kind of noseeum reasoning to God and evil. Rowe suggests that if we cannot see a reason for a particular instance of evil, then there is probably not a reason. Suppose we hear about a very young child who is tortured to death to amuse some psychotic person. We think about this event and we examine all the circumstances surrounding it. No matter how hard we try, we cannot see any good reason why this child had to suffer the way she did. Since we cannot see a reason why God would allow this child to suffer, there probably is not a good reason—the child’s suffering was pointless. Of course, Rowe would be quick to point out that he is not speaking merely hypothetically. There are cases like this in the news every day—real-life cases in which we shake our heads in frustration, wondering why God would allow such a thing.

Is Rowe correct in his conclusion? Do such examples prove that there is pointless evil in the world? I don’t think so. To see why, we must recognize that noseeum inferences are not all created equal. Some noseeum inferences, as we have seen, are reasonable and appropriate. But, many are not. Suppose I look up at the night sky at the star Deneb and I do not see a planet orbiting that star. Would it be reasonable for me to conclude that there is no planet orbiting Deneb? Of course not. Suppose that using the best telescopes and other imaging equipment presently available, I still cannot see a planet around Deneb. I would still be unjustified in concluding that there was no such planet.

In that example, the planet is the noseeum. Just because you look really hard, you can’t be confident that the planet is not there. And similarly with the problem of evil and suffering, looking really hard and finding no reason does not mean that there is no reason. It just means that you are not in a good position to see the reason. You don’t know enough to to be sure that there is no reason, because of your limitations as a human being.

To know that any given instance of evil or suffering is gratuitous/pointless requires a high level of knowledge. How much knowledge? Well, consider this paper by the late William Alston of Syracuse University, who lists six problems with the idea that humans can know that any particular instance of evil and suffering is gratuitous. (You can get the PDF here)

According to the paper, human beings just do not have the capability to know for certain that God has NO morally sufficient reason for allowing any particular instance of evil and/or suffering. God’s morally sufficient reason is a noseeum. To know for sure that there is no reason, we would need to have more knowledge than we do.

Also, remember that on the Christian view, the good aim that God has is NOT to make humans have happy feelings in this life, regardless of their knowledge, wisdom and character. That’s what atheists think, though. They think that God, if he exists, is obligated to make them feel happy all the time. They don’t think that God’s goal is being actively involved in forming their knowledge, wisdom and character. God has a purpose – to work in the world so that everyone who can freely respond to him will respond to him. The Bible says that allowing pain and suffering is one of the ways that he gets that group of people who are willing to respond to respond to him – FREELY. To be able to claim that evil is gratuitous, the atheist has to show that God can achieve his goal of saving all the people he wants to save while permitting less suffering in the world. And that is a very difficult thing for an atheist to show, given our human cognitive limitations.

The best place to learn more about no-see-ums is in this excellent lecture by Biola University professor Doug Geivett.

The true story of Thanksgiving: Squanto’s miraculous path to Plymouth

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

God’s providence in action, as reported by Eric Metaxas in the Wall Street Journal.

Full text:

The story of how the Pilgrims arrived at our shores on the Mayflower—and how a friendly Patuxet native named Squanto showed them how to plant corn, using fish as fertilizer—is well-known. But Squanto’s full story is not, as National Geographic’s new Thanksgiving miniseries, “Saints & Strangers,” shows. That might be because some details of Squanto’s life are in dispute. The important ones are not, however. His story is astonishing, even raising profound questions about God’s role in American history.

Every Thanksgiving we remember that, to escape religious persecution, the Pilgrims sailed to the New World, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. But numerous trading ships had visited the area earlier. Around 1608 an English ship dropped anchor off the coast of what is today Plymouth, Mass., ostensibly to trade metal goods for the natives’ beads and pelts. The friendly Patuxets received the crew but soon discovered their dark intentions. A number of the braves were brutally captured, taken to Spain and sold into slavery.

One of them, a young man named Tisquantum, or Squanto, was bought by a group of Catholic friars, who evidently treated him well and freed him, even allowing him to dream of somehow returning to the New World, an almost unimaginable thought at the time. Around 1612, Squanto made his way to London, where he stayed with a man namedJohn Slany and learned his ways and language. In 1618, a ship was found, and in return for serving as an interpreter, Squanto would be given one-way passage back to the New World.

After spending a winter in Newfoundland, the ship made its way down the coast of Maine and Cape Cod, where Squanto at last reached his own shore. After 10 years, Squanto returned to the village where he had been born. But when he arrived, to his unfathomable disappointment, there was no one to greet him. What had happened?

It seems that since he had been away, nearly every member of the Patuxets had perished from disease, perhaps smallpox, brought by European ships. Had Squanto not been kidnapped, he would almost surely have died. But perhaps he didn’t feel lucky to have been spared. Surely, he must have wondered how his extraordinary efforts could amount to this. At first he wandered to another Wampanoag tribe, but they weren’t his people. He was a man without a family or tribe, and eventually lived alone in the woods.

But his story didn’t end there. In the bleak November of 1620, the Mayflower passengers, unable to navigate south to the warmer land of Virginia, decided to settle at Plymouth, the very spot where Squanto had grown up. They had come in search of religious freedom, hoping to found a colony based on Christian principles.

Their journey was very difficult, and their celebrated landing on the frigid shores of Plymouth proved even more so. Forced to sleep in miserably wet and cold conditions, many of them fell gravely ill. Half of them died during that terrible winter. One can imagine how they must have wept and wondered how the God they trusted and followed could lead them to this agonizing pass. They seriously considered returning to Europe.

But one day during that spring of 1621, a Wampanoag walked out of the woods to greet them. Somehow he spoke perfect English. In fact, he had lived in London more recently than they had. And if that weren’t strange enough, he had grown up on the exact land where they had settled.

Because of this, he knew everything about how to survive there; not only how to plant corn and squash, but how to find fish and lobsters and eels and much else. The lone Patuxet survivor had nowhere to go, so the Pilgrims adopted him as one of their own and he lived with them on the land of his childhood.

No one disputes that Squanto’s advent among the Pilgrims changed everything, making it possible for them to stay and thrive. Squanto even helped broker a peace with the local tribes, one that lasted 50 years, a staggering accomplishment considering the troubles settlers would face later.

So the question is: Can all of this have been sheer happenstance, as most versions of the story would have us believe? The Pilgrims hardly thought so. To them, Squanto was a living answer to their tearful prayers, an outrageous miracle of God. Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford declared in his journal that Squanto “became a special instrument sent of God” who didn’t leave them “till he died.”

Indeed, when Squanto died from a mysterious disease in 1622, Bradford wrote that he wanted “the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.” And Squanto bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims “as remembrances of his love.”

These are historical facts. May we be forgiven for interpreting them as the answered prayers of a suffering people, and a warm touch at the cold dawn of our history of an Almighty Hand?

America is truly a blessed nation. Why this story is not taught in all the schools of the nation is beyond me.

If you accept Jesus and become a Christian, will God make you happy?

Navy SEAL Matthew "Axe" Axelson
Navy SEAL Matthew “Axe” Axelson

This is a wonderful, wonderful post from Amy Hall, who writes for the Stand to Reason blog.

She writes:

I had a brief interaction with an atheist on Twitter a couple of weeks ago that unexpectedly turned to the issue of suffering when she said:

You clearly never had a time you were hurt. I don’t mean sick. I don’t mean heart broken. I mean literally a near death experience or rape or abusive relationship…. You can keep floating on a [expletive] cloud thinking Jesus will do everything for you but it’s a lie. What makes you so special?

That surprised me at first because it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the tweet she was responding to, and I was confused as to why she would assume I’d never been through anything traumatic. But then in subsequent tweets, when she revealed she had been raped, it became clear that her trauma had played a central role in her becoming an outspoken, obviously angry “antitheist.” She’s a self-described antitheist now because she thinks Christianity teaches Jesus “will do everything for you” to give you a perfect life, and now she knows that’s a lie. The rape proved her understanding of Christianity false.

So it made sense for her to reason that since I believe Christianity is true, I must still be under the delusion that Jesus is making my life special, which means I obviously never encountered any evil or suffering to shake that delusion.

All right, readers. I don’t want any of you to be thinking that if you become a Christian that these things should be expected to happen:

  • you will feel happy all the time
  • you will be able to sense God’s secret plan for your life through your feelings
  • God’s secret plan for your life will automatically work, even though it’s crazy
  • God will give you a perfect spouse and lots of money without you having to do any work
  • you get permission to do things that that make you happy, even if they are expressly forbidden by the Bible
  • you don’t have to do anything that makes you feel bad (e.g. – go to work), because God wants you to be happy

No! Where do people get this idea that if they convert to Christianity, then God will become their cosmic butler?

Amy has the answer: (emphasis mine)

Hear me, everyone: This is a failure of the church.

A friend of mine who was deeply suffering once said to me that many Christians are in for “an epic letdown” when they realize their preconceived notions about what God is expected to do for us are false. Pastors who preach a life-improvement Jesus are leading people down this precarious path to disillusionment.

If suffering disproves your Christianity, you’ve missed Christianity. The Bible is filled with the suffering of those whom God loves. The central event of the Bible is one of suffering. Love involves suffering. “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” That means suffering.

It’s the church. It’s all the singing about happy things and having of happy feelings and happy preaching designed to make us feel good. I would say the comforting devotional reading doesn’t help to make us any tougher or more practical, either. People seem to use Bible study and devotion as a way to artificially create good feelings of happiness, peace and comfort, instead of just doing hard things to serve God. I don’t think it’s a “spiritual” Christian thing to read A. W. Tozer, etc. just so that you can feel comforted and spiritual. That stuff just gives you a false sense of safety about your precarious situation. God’s job is not to prevent you from suffering. In fact, even if you make really smart, practical decisions, you can expect to get creamed anyway.

Please take 15 minutes and read the book of 1 Peter in the New Testament.

Here’s a summary from GotQuestions.org:

Purpose of Writing: 1 Peter is a letter from Peter to the believers who had been dispersed throughout the ancient world and were under intense persecution. If anyone understood persecution, it was Peter. He was beaten, threatened, punished and jailed for preaching the Word of God. He knew what it took to endure without bitterness, without losing hope and in great faith living an obedient, victorious life. This knowledge of living hope in Jesus was the message and Christ’s example was the one to follow.

Brief Summary: Though this time of persecution was desperate, Peter reveals that it was actually a time to rejoice. He says to count it a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ, as their Savior suffered for them. This letter makes reference to Peter’s personal experiences with Jesus and his sermons from the book of Acts. Peter confirms Satan as the great enemy of every Christian but the assurance of Christ’s future return gives the incentive of hope.

Practical Application: The assurance of eternal life is given to all Christians. One way to identify with Christ is to share in His suffering. To us that would be to endure insults and slurs from those who call us “goodie two shoes” or “holier than thou.” This is so minor compared to what Christ suffered for us on the Cross. Stand up for what you know and believe is right and rejoice when the world and Satan aim to hurt you.

Recently, I blogged about how suffering is compatible with an all-powerful God, so you might want to read that too if you missed it.