I just began Tim Keller’s monumental new book on the problem of evil Walking with God through Pain and Suffering and it’s, well, it’s monumental. I’ve read a number of books on the subject, especially in my undergrad in philosophy, and I have to say, though I’m only a couple of chapters in, it’s going to be the new classic on the subject. Unlike other works on the subject, he’s not only pastoral, or only philosophical, or only theological, but he approaches the issue of suffering from all of these angles and more. Sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, and, of course, the Scriptures, are brought to bear on the seemingly intractable burden of suffering and evil.
While we can’t logic ourselves out of pain, making meaning of our suffering is inevitable, and the framework through which you view life reveals itself most clearly in our approach to pain. Without doing a full review, I wanted to simply highlight a key little section towards the beginning where he, in short order, lists four key doctrines of the Christian faith that give deep resources for dealing with pain, suffering and evil over and against the secular or deistic view (numbers are mine):
- “The first relevant Christian belief is in a personal, wise, infinite, and therefore inscrutable God who controls the affairs of the world–and that is far more comforting than the belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random chance.
- The second crucial tenet is that, in Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered with and for us sacrificially–and that is far more comforting than the idea that god is remote and uninvolved. The cross also proves that, despite all the inscrutability, God is for us.
- The third doctrine is that through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we can have assurance of our salvation–that is far more comforting than karmic systems of thought. We are assured that the difficulties of lie are not payment for our past sins, since Jesus has paid them. As Luther taught, suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that God is for you and with you. Secularity cannot give you that, and religions that provide salvation through virtue and good works cannot give it, either.
- The fourth great doctrine is that of the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe. This completes the spectrum of our joys an consolations. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is for love without parting. Needless to say, the prospect of resurrection is far more comforting than the beliefs that death just takes into nothingness or into an impersonal spiritual substance. The resurrection goes beyond the promise of an ethereal, disembodied afterlife. We get our bodies back, in a state of beauty and power that we cannot today imagine. Jesus’ resurrection was corporeal–it could be touched and embraced, and he ate food. And yet he passed through closed doors and could disappear. This is a material existence, but one beyond the bounds of our imagination. The idea of heaven can be a consolation for suffering, a compensation for the life we have lost. But resurrection is not just consolation–it is restoration. We get it all back–the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life–but to knew, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength. It is a reversal of the seeming irreversibility of loss…”
—Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, pp. 58-59
Note clearly: this is no mere theism with general platitudes about everything working itself out, or karma, or what-have-you, but concrete consolation grounded in deep Gospel truth revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the first doctrine of God’s inscrutable wisdom is one grounded in fact that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), for our salvation.
Clearly we could expand on all of these (and Keller will), but these four thick truths of the Christian faith are the key doctrinal pillars upon which any properly Christian response to suffering will rest. This is how the Christian begins to deal with the problem of pain and suffering. Once more, this is why doctrine matters for real life.
Soli Deo Gloria