Tag Archives: Suffering

Review: Christmas Eve and Easter Day

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Robert Browning (1812-1899) was an eminent English poet of the Victorian era, known for his ambitious and dramatic lyrics and monologues. He had an evangelical upbringing, and had a home-grown love for learning. His wife of many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an equally revered poet, though her career was much shorter due to a chronic illness.

Genre: Poetry, theodicy.

Overview:

Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850)—the British spelling hyphenates both—is titled as one poem with two parts, and 55 small sections. It has also been published as two separate poems. Quite regardless of its visionary settings, the poem take a mostly introspective stance typical of Browning’s poetry.

Though Browning is often philosophical, this is one of his most overtly Christian poems, and some attribute this to the influence of his recent marriage to Elizabeth Barrett. She told a correspondent concerning this poem, “Certainly the poem does not represent his own permanent state of mind, which was what I meant when I told you it was ‘dramatic.'”

In the first part, Christmas-Eve, a young man enters a chapel alone for a holiday service. During the service, though, he becomes restless and begins contemplating the preacher’s hypocrisy, as he perceives it, and his own doubts of God’s goodness. He leaves the service, choosing to think to himself out in the cold. He ponders on his own faith and that of the preacher.

The contemplations he enters into are reminiscent to the relational theology of George MacDonald, or “Ugo Bassi’s Sermon in the Hospital” by Harriet Eleanor Hamilton-King. Browning reflects on the relationship between free will and creation. How can God create a good creation when he must grant his creatures some autonomy?

The main character speaks cynically of the preacher at first, but, in time, he is compelled to separate those aspects of religion that are merely social or traditional, from those aspects of faith that are real and deal with the unseen.

I recommend this poem, especially if you are dealing with doubt (or “deconstruction”) or enjoy relational theology. It starts slow but when it gets going it is very good.

Read: This little book is available to read online on Project Gutenberg (here), and in PDF format on the Internet Archive.

Review: God, Freedom, and Evil

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Alvin C. Plantinga is an American analytic philosopher.

Genre: Analytic philosophy.

Overview:

God, Freedom, and Evil (1974) focuses on two important theological problems:

  1. The problem of evil, which Plantinga classifies as “natural atheology” (p. 5-64);
  2. The ontological argument for God’s existence, which Plantinga classifies as “natural theology” (p. 85-112).

In passing, Plantinga discusses verificationism (p. 65-66), and arguments about the incompatibility of divine omniscience and human freedom (p. 66-73). He also covers the cosmological argument for God’s existence, popularized by Aquinas (p. 77-80); and the teleological argument for God’s existence, (p. 81-84).

This book often summarizes from Plantinga’s earlier and longer work in God and Other Minds (1967); it appears that this book was written with a more popular audience.

Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense”

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is the most important part of this book. Some philosophers believe that this defense has effectively rebutted the problem of evil in philosophy.

The problem of evil (as stated by Hume and others) regards moral evil as incompatible with the existence of an utterly benevolent and omnipotent God. Plantinga points out that these propositions—God’s existence, God’s omnipotence, God’s benevolence and the existence of moral evil—are not explicitly contradictory. Some explanation is required to see that there even is a “problem” of evil, and certain presuppositions may be questioned. Plantinga uses the rules of logic to show that free will provides a plausible explanation for moral evil, even in a world created by an omnibenevolent God.

The gist of his argument is that it is possible that God, though omnipotent, cannot create a world in which all free actors always and necessarily choose to do good. For some Protestants, this may be a firm stance (i.e. a theodicy), but Plantinga points out that he does not need to prove this position. He only needs to prove that it is logically possible, and thus he uses the term ‘defense’ rather than ‘theodicy’.

Plantinga’s defense is thorough and grows in complexity. The lynchpin in his argument is what he calls “transworld depravity”: the idea that, if certain conditions are always met, a free moral agent may choose to do wrong in every possible world. “What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong.” (p. 48)

It should not be surprising that our own guilt frees us from laying an accusation against God. A way of restating the argument in simplistic terms is this: the problem of evil relies on the unproven premise that, if we were God, we could do better than God did (that is, by creating a world with either less moral evil, or no moral evil).

A Note on Omniscience and Freedom

Plantinga argues (against an article by Nelson Pike) that divine omniscience and human freedom are compatible. This is, of course, the classical Arminian position. Pike used an example similar to the following:

  1. Suppose that at a certain time (let’s say, Tuesday), God believed that Charlie Brown would kick Lucy’s football on Wednesday.
  2. Charlie Brown has true freedom to either kick or not kick the football.
  3. Charlie Brown’s choice on Wednesday cannot cause God to change his belief on Tuesday.
  4. Therefore, if Charlie Brown chooses not to kick the football on Wednesday, then God was incorrect on Tuesday—God forbid!

In a nutshell, Plantinga uses the idea of “possible worlds” to argue that God has infallible foreknowledge in every possible state of affairs. I noticed a disconnect here. Plantinga apparently denies the premise #3 above because he and Pike are viewing time differently.

Pike seems to be assuming a linear view of time, in which a past mistake cannot be corrected.

Plantinga seems to be assuming a non-linear view of time, in which the future is somehow visible to God, perhaps from some stance “outside of time”.

Oscar Cullmann’s book Christ and Time (1964) famously asserts that the Jews of Christ’s day had a linear view of time in which any kind of supertemporal abstraction was inconceivable. If Cullmann is correct, then the view asserted by Plantinga is not the traditional or biblical view, and we are left to amend either our view of God’s essential omniscience (i.e., by denying absolute foreknowledge) or our view of human freedom (i.e., by admitting Calvinistic determinism).

Affliction by Edith Schaeffer book cover

Review: Affliction (Edith Schaeffer)

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: Edith Schaeffer, co-founder of L’Abri, American missionary to Switzerland with her husband, Francis Schaeffer. Edith and Francis Schaeffer spent many years serving the Presbyterian church in Missouri and in writing children’s materials as missionaries before they stumbled into a mission to reach Europe’s intelligentsia, which became their full-time vocation and lifelong focus. Edith’s books are very different in tone from those of her husband—and they are at least as good, if not better.

Overview: Edith Schaeffer’s book tactfully and compassionately explores human affliction. Rather than presenting a central “theodicy” to explain evil or suffering, Edith focuses on practical, devotional thoughts that are central to biblical thought about suffering.

Meat: The chief insight of Affliction is that we are given a unique role in human history, a role that no one else can fill, and that suffering cannot take that away. The most important ingredients in life, its meaning and destiny, and the chief end of man, are unaffected by suffering.

A central metaphor for Edith Schaeffer is that of the tapestry: God is weaving our lives together into a redemptive history, and every unique story of faithfulness presents a special proof of God’s love and care—whether that faithfulness occurs in plenty or poverty, in joy or suffering.

Bones: I can add no criticism of her book, except that it took me so long to chew on all the material. It is dense with anecdotes, like its twin book, L’Abri.

Quotes: “Our personal afflictions involve the living God; the only way in which Satan can persecute or afflict God us through attacking the people of God.” (p. 27)

“The compassion and the tenderness of our loving heavenly Father will take forever to learn about.”

“Death is not to be taken as a ‘normal, beautiful release’ but as an enemy. It spoils the beautiful creation of God.”

Related: L’Abri.

Review: Has Christianity Failed You?

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Ravi Zacharias, modern apologist and speaker. Ravi is the author of Can Man Live Without God? and many other books.

Overview: This book is one of Ravi’s lighter reads, and it deals with various points relating to doubt and suffering. This may sound like covering old ground, but books like Can Man Live Without God? deal with the rational basis for theism; Has Christianity Failed You? focuses on heart issues.

The main thrust of the book, in my opinion is two points: First, we are incapable of true transcendence, and must learn to cope with uncertainty. Second, God retains his right to act as he will, and is not bound to do everything we ask, even in prayer. Jesus did not solve all of the world’s problems, and did not promise to do so on this earth. He came to provide a way to the Father and a path to redemption.

We experience some miracles, but not all the miracles we want; we see some of God, but not all we would like. In the end, the hunt for miraculous transcendence leaves us where we started: asking for ‘just one more’ proof of God’s existence. We must obey the God that we know, rather than asking him to obey us.

Ravi gives the powerful example of John the Baptist in prison, sending a question to Jesus to ask if he is truly the Messiah. Jesus points to the miracles all around him, but does not stage a coup against Herod, or smuggle John out of prison, or perform a miracle in John’s behalf. So John dies because of the testimony of Jesus’ Messiahship—the Messiahship that delivered from sin, but not from pain.

Meat: The chapter on prayer is worth reading more than once. Frequently a loss of prayer life is the erosion of the foundation under the spiritual life, and if we can address its issues, we will not feel like Christianity has failed us. Some readers might be surprised when I say that Ravi is at his strongest when he gets to the heart issues, and we should not relegate him to the apologetics shelf.

Bones: Ravi brings a wealth of examples in this book—so many that sometimes I couldn’t follow the train of thought from point to point. Each chapter makes great points, but it was hard at times to see how they connected to one another. The chapter addressing “The Reason-Driven Life” almost felt like it was in the wrong book.

Quotes: “Virtually every great leader in the Bible struggled during times of testing or tension over what they thought God should do or say, even though they had recognized God’s divine intervention earlier.” (p. 77)

“At first blush, the miracle seems the only way to win a following. But the fickleness of the human mind, our insatiable desire to always want ‘just one more,’ the ever-present reality of need, our desire to play God and hence to control God, the apparent ‘hiddenness’ of God when we need him most—all these reasons that become even more urgent in intense situations make the plea for the arm to be reattached ‘just this once’ highly suspect.” (p. 77)

“If you a praying Christian, your faith in God is what is carrying you, through both the good times and the hard times. However, if you are not a praying person, you are carrying your faith, and trying to carry the infinite is very exhausting.” (p. 151)