Antony Flew (1923-2010) was considered the leading atheist of his generation. His father was a Methodist minister, so most of Flew’s early years were spent in church circles among church people. His early years were also some of the most turbulent years in European history, and the suffering that came about through ideological and military conflict led Flew to give up on God. How could there be a God when there was so much suffering?
That question is asked by many people. It is one of the major objections to the Christian faith and to faith in general. And it’s fair to say that even believers are sometimes bewildered by the prevalence of suffering and evil – especially when evil people seem to get away with it! The author of Psalm 73 had exactly that problem until he began to see things from God’s perspective.
Oddly enough, the existence of evil and suffering is an argument for the existence of God.
That might sound a strange thing to say, but think for a moment what is implied when we become frustrated or even outraged by suffering and evil. We are saying that there is something wrong with the world. That it’s not the way it should be. That indicates that there is a way it should be. “It’s not fair” indicates that we have in mind a standard of fairness.
This is something that just about every person in the world holds in their heart: a sense of what is fair and what is not fair, what is right and what is wrong.
Where does that intuitive knowledge of a standard of fairness come from?
Well, if there is no God, then we can have no real complaint about the way the world is. It just is that way. Nature is violent, human nature is selfish. Everything is based on the survival of the fittest. There is no order or meaning in the world. We are here by chance so looking for some sort of meaning to life is pointless. That’s what some famous thinkers have taught. Albert Camus and John-Paul Sartre are among them. Richard Dawkins’ outlook takes you in exactly the same direction.
But that kind of thinking doesn’t satisfy most people. Because most people believe there are real standards of morality and justice. Believers answer that our quest for fairness and our dissatisfaction with what goes on in our world reflects an intuitive if diminished knowledge of God’s law. Martin Luther King, when he was in Birmingham jail, said that if there was no divine law, then we had no basis for challenging any unjust law.
How does that help us with the issue of evil and suffering? Well, the Bible teaches that all of the problems of the world can be traced back to the wrong choice of the first couple. The root of the problem of evil and suffering lies in a choice that was made to yield to the voice of Satan, who promised Adam and Eve that they would become more powerful if they ate the forbidden fruit. When you think of it, the first temptation was all about power; much of the suffering and evil in the world today is tied up with the pursuit of power.
Those first chapters of the Bible also reveal that what happened is part of an ongoing battle between light and darkness. In Genesis 3.15 we find the promise of Messiah who would crush the serpent’s head. God is a warrior actively hunting down evil, not a policeman defending His own patch.
When we turn over to the New Testament, we find that God goes even further to rescue His world. He comes into the world in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 4.15 says that Jesus understands us completely and is able to sympathise with us, because he was tempted in every way, just like us.
The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is another chapter in the long war against Satan. And it is a decisive chapter. Satan’s doom is sealed. Broken lives are being restored and healed by His grace.
Of course, the Bible teaches that there are still better things to come. One day Christ will return and bring about a whole new order where righteousness is the standard. No more pain, suffering, sickness or death.
Until that day comes, God offers every person the opportunity of a relationship with Him and of securing their place in His eternal kingdom.
That might seem a long way from where we started out! However, what I have just sketched out briefly outlines the Christian hope and the Christian response to evil and suffering.
People sometimes think that evil and suffering deny that there could be a God. I believe evil and suffering demand a God.
I don’t know if Antony Flew ever managed to find answers to his questions about suffering. He did eventually change his opinions about God. Late in life he came to the conclusion that the laws of nature, our sense of purpose as humans and the very existence of the universe indicated that there was a God. One thing is certain, however, if there is no God, there is no way to understand evil and suffering let alone fight it.