Chapter OneObjection #1: Since Evil and Suffering Exist, a Loving God Cannot
Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to; or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, and does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how comes evil in the world?
The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God's justice and love.
John Stott, theologian
As an idealistic young reporter fresh out of journalism school, one of my first assignments at the Chicago Tribune was to write a thirty-part series in which I would profile destitute families living in the city. Having been raised in the homogenized suburbs, where being "needy" meant having only one Cadillac, I quickly found myself immersed in Chicago's underbelly of deprivation and desperation. In a way, my experience was akin to Charles Templeton's reaction to the photo of the African woman with her deceased baby.
Just a short drive from Chicago's Magnificent Mile, where stately Tribune Tower rubs shoulders with elegant fashion boutiques and luxury hotels, I walked into the tiny, dim, and barren hovel being shared by sixty-year-old Perfecta de Jesus and her two granddaughters. They had lived there about a month, ever since their previous cockroach-infested tenement erupted in flames.
Perfecta, frail and sickly, had run out of money weeks earlier and had received a small amount of emergency food stamps. She stretched the food by serving only rice and beans with bits of meat for meal after meal. The meat ran out quickly. Then the beans. Now all that was left was a handful of rice. When the overdue public-aid check would finally come, it would be quickly consumed by the rent and utility bills, and the family would be right back where it started.
The apartment was almost completely empty, without furniture, appliances, or carpets. Words echoed off the bare walls and cold wooden floor. When her eleven-year-old granddaughter, Lydia, would set off for her half-mile walk to school on the biting cold winter mornings, she would wear only a thin gray sweater over her short-sleeved, print dress. Halfway to school, she would give the sweater to her shivering thirteen-year-old sister, Jenny, clad in just a sleeveless dress, who would wrap the sweater around herself for the rest of the way. Those were the only clothes they owned.
"I try to take care of the girls as best I can," Perfecta explained to me in Spanish. "They are good. They don't complain."
Hours later, safely back in my plush lakefront high-rise with an inspiring view of Chicago's wealthiest neighborhoods, I felt staggered by the contrast. If there is a God, why would kind and decent people like Perfecta and her grandchildren be cold and hungry in the midst of one of the greatest cities in the world? Day after day as I conducted research for my series, I encountered people in circumstances that were similar or even worse. My response was to settle deeper into my atheism.
Hardships, suffering, heartbreak, man's inhumanity to man-those were my daily diet as a journalist. This wasn't looking at magazine photos from faraway places; this was the grit and pain of life, up close and personal.
I've looked into the eyes of a young mother who had just been told that her only daughter had been molested, mutilated, and murdered. I've listened to courtroom testimony describing gruesome horrors that had been perpetrated against innocent victims. I've visited noisy and chaotic prisons, the trash heaps of society; low-budget nursing homes where the elderly languish after being abandoned by their loved ones; pediatric hospital wards where emaciated children fight vainly against the inexorable advance of cancer; and crime-addled inner cities where drug trafficking and drive-by shootings are all too common.
But nothing shocked me as much as my visit to the slums of Bombay, India. Lining both sides of the noisy, filthy, congested streets, as far as the eye could see, were small cardboard and burlap shanties, situated right next to the road where buses and cars would spew their exhaust and soot. Naked children played in the open sewage ditches that coursed through the area. People with missing limbs or bodies contorted by deformities sat passively in the dirt. Insects buzzed everywhere. It was a horrific scene, a place where, one taxi driver told me, people are born on the sidewalk, live their entire lives on the sidewalk, and die a premature death on the sidewalk.
Then I came face-to-face with a ten-year-old boy, about the same age as my son Kyle at the time. The Indian child was scrawny and malnourished, his hair filthy and matted. One eye was diseased and half closed; the other stared vacantly. Blood oozed from scabs on his face. He extended his hand and mumbled something in Hindi, apparently begging for coins. But his voice was a dull, lifeless monotone, as if he didn't expect any response. As if he had been drained of all hope.
Where was God in that festering hellhole? If he had the power to instantly heal that youngster, why did he turn his back? If he loved these people, why didn't he show it by rescuing them? Is this, I wondered, the real reason: because the very presence of such awful, heart-wrenching suffering actually disproves the existence of a good and loving Father?