I have complete sympathy for atheists and agnostics. I’ve wrestled with questions my entire life and whether or not there is a God is always one of them. But the one thing that I can’t understand is being angry about human suffering, from a rational basis, if God does not exist. If there is no ultimate good, no greater purpose or meaning to life, on what basis do we make a moral judgment about suffering?
Okay, let’s back up a second. I’m here at my local establishment drinking another Long Island, one of many since the death of Uriah, and it hasn’t given me an answer as to why he would die of cancer at twenty-four. The medical diagnosis is simple enough. He had cancer. The aggressive kind. It started with the lump on his ankle during boot camp. I still have the picture on my phone taken out of morbid curiosity and never dreaming it was a death sentence.
Uriah and I, despite our difference in age, got along in a way that only cousins do. He was like me. We didn’t simply accept those easy cliché answers. He was someone who was both determined and also full of doubts. He was also the six-foot tall and better version of everything I ever was. The best part was that I could claim some of his success for myself given that I had encouraged him to continue his college education, telling him that it was better to keep going than to live a life of regrets.
Watching Uriah sacrifice a leg only to have the cancer be found in his lungs a year later. It was a gut punch. I think I stopped praying, at some point, because I just knew what the prognosis was.
The hardest part, however, is that Uriah was not the first of his family that I had to carry out of the church on a cold winter day. His parents had already lost one of their children to a seizure disorder. His two other siblings are severely disabled and will need constant care. Judy, his mom, is an incredible woman and has extraordinary faith. Ed too has great strength of character. And neither of them wastes any time feeling sorry for themselves despite losing the one healthy child they had to this terrible disease.
Where was God?
When my little Saniyah died, unexpectedly, it was a really big struggle for me. It took me years to get my feet back under me again, spiritually and emotionally speaking, and I had both doubted my own faith along with the existence of a loving God. The death of Uriah, along with my disappointments with those whom I put my trust in, and my long wait for Charlotte, have really tested me the past few years. But, I have those who need me to be strong this time around and, for this reason, have had to push back against falling into despair again.
Nevertheless, I totally get why someone who has encountered suffering in a personal way is angry and denies the existence of God on this basis. I mean why would this kind of pain and loss be allowed if there is an all-powerful good in the universe, right? Why would God not intervene and stop this all rather than let us go through such terrible experiences? It doesn’t make much sense, does it, that we should be left so lonely and struggling if God is good.
However, if we eliminate totally God from the equation, then we dismiss religious morality and must acknowledge that there is nothing written in the fabric of the universe that says our existence entitles us to good feelings. I mean, as far as evolution goes, pain is more or less a survival tool, a feedback system to tell us what to avoid. Feeling sad about the death of a friend or family member is, by this logic, a malfunction.
In this harsh environment, where everything is out to kill us, why would we ever expect anything more than suffering?
The moral reasoning that makes this bad, if you are truly an atheist, is nothing other than a construct. In terms of pure biology, it is good that fire hurts or we might burn our arms off. That is pain for a very practical and utilitarian purpose. Undeniably good if there is such a thing. But what reasonable good is there in mourning those already dead? No point in crying over spilled milk, right? A totally rational being would simply move on to the next social resource and not be so attached or sentimental.
Being upset over suffering and death, if there is no God, is irrational. And, if there is a God, like that of Christianity, then suffering and death are exactly what we’re promised in this life. Sheesh. Did you read the story of Jesus and how he was betrayed, beaten, and then unjustly killed in the most brutal fashion all as part of a redemptive plan? If you actually believe in eternity then why be angry about a few years living out this rich narrative we call life?
At the very least, how can we judge anything, especially a fictional character, on the basis of a moral standard that doesn’t exist?
If there is no God, then there is no basis for morality either. That too, including the idea that suffering is bad or pleasure is good, is entirely a construct. Pain is good in some circumstances, it protects us from injury and causes us to change behavior in ways that are beneficial. In other words, without the discomfort of hunger or thirst, we would not correctly prioritize our life. Pleasure can be bad when it makes us eat too many donuts and become diabetic. So how does one truly know that their own interpretation of these signals is the correct one?
From what I’ve observed in myself and in others, unbelief stems from disappointment when things do not go as expected. It is about who is in control. We can cling, in our own arrogance, to this notion that the universe should bend to our will. Or realize that our own perceptions, based on senses which are not very reliable and a brain prone to making mistakes in judgment, are not infallible or ever actual truth.
The thing is we only ever know if suffering is good or bad if it is properly contextualized if we understand the end. For example, feeling the burn of exercise is good pain because it is what accompanies muscle development and so we embrace this. So what is the real context of our life? To what end, or for what reason, did we become conscious? What is behind this ‘accident’ if it is one?
How do we contextualize our existence enough to judge what is good or bad?
If there is such a thing as an eternal reward, that would change the calculus, right? It would mean that all pain can be gain, and all suffering can draw us closer as much as it drives us away because defining the moral character of any experience depends on the end. I am willing to subject myself to many hardships if the reward is big enough. No, this doesn’t take away the question of why we must go through here to get there. But seeing past our immediate feelings is pretty much the only way to make progress.
Angry is a feeling, not a guide for life…
I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.C.S. Lewis
People don’t walk away from Christianity for rational or scientific reasons. Sure, they may guard their emotion-based unbelief behind a wall of post hoc justification. But the reality is that they’re upset about something. They had expectations and are now disappointed and acting as wounded people do. It’s just strange that anyone at all Biblically literate would suddenly lose faith over our suffering when that’s literally the only we’re promised in this life.
What really doesn’t make any sense is why anyone would rather suffer with no hope at all of eternity. If God is dead, then nihilism is the logical next stop and that life has no real meaning or purpose. But the suffering does not go away simply because we’re angry at the giver of life. No, it will only intensify and become a spiral of despair. Our salvation is in our understanding that, smart as we may think we are, we’re truly quite ignorant and even our most ‘concrete’ reality is not real:
The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.Werner Heisenberg
For those who don’t know who that is, Mr. Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1932, for the creation of quantum mechanics. Materialism, despite the zombie corpse of this thing staggering on, died with the discovery of things in defiance of this entirely too simplistic conception. Sure, this kind of physics is well-beyond most, but it does support a notion of reality that requires a Universal Perceiver (as described in this article) and we could call that God.
So, if you’re actually serious about science, then the hard science of physics is the place to start and, with its mathematical origin and proofs, is much less likely to be clouded by emotion one way or another. We can’t run from God. But we may need to leave behind the baggage of our own misconceptions and learn the value of true repentance. Maybe Uriah died, and went to his reward, so some of us would have our flawed thinking broken and seek our salvation in Him?
Maybe some of us are just too stubborn, or too needing of control being in our own hands, to admit we can’t save ourselves?
I’ll tell you this. The universe, without God, is an infinitely dark and lonely place. It is that starring abyss of which Friedrich Nietzsche warned, the existential horror H.P. Lovecraft describes. Highly intelligent men, both of them, and understood the implications that come with true unbelief in God. You will not escape your suffering simply by denying that the Divine all-powerful good exists. No, rather you will just remain in that hell of your own creation.
Postscript: Questions Remain
I still grieve Uriah, as I do Saniyah, uncle Roland, and others that seem to have been taken before their time. I’ve long struggled against sources of trauma much more basic, the lack of unconditional love in the church that could make up for my shortcomings, and much of that is unresolved. At the time of my writing, the impossibility is something yet to be fulfilled. I do not have answers for any of this nor do I expect to. I’m not the arrogant kid who argued with his high school biology teacher, not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist at all, and yet must believe.