This time last year, I was in the Tate Modern in London watching a film of a young boy miming scenes he’d seen in war. Gunfire, grenades, beheading, execution. How is it fair a child so young had to experience these?
The question of suffering is tough to talk about. Not only because it’s so common, but also so personal. Every one of us has or will one day will be hurt: a diagnosis, a loss, mistreatment. 350 million people around the world struggle with depression. It might even be you, too.
We’ve been glued to our screens watching fires in Australia, hearing politicians and campaigners warn us about climate change, and heard of thousands of stories being brought into the open in the #MeToo campaign. Now we’re staying home, fighting a virus before it overwhelms our healthcare system. Death tolls continue to rise before they fall.
Three summers ago at my friend’s wedding, I got a phone call from my friend. It was about her sister. Her sister was going into her second year of studying music at university. She and her boyfriend were visiting his mum’s city, walking midday on a slow stroll. A drunk-driver swerved onto the pavement and hit both of them before crashing the car into a lamppost, stumbling out and attempting to hide.
He was taken to hospital with a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, a broken cheekbone, and a temple fracture which has left him permanently deaf in one ear. He survived. She was also taken to hospital, but she didn’t make it. A nurse left a note, scribbled:
“I’m so sorry I could not help you. I tried so hard to save you.”
If this is God’s world, why is there so much hurt? It surely doesn’t feel like this is the way the world should be!
When I felt this pain, I had to ask myself another question: If there is no God at all, if this is all there is, what do we say about pain? Why does life hurt?
One atheist writer, Christopher Hitchens, a who recently died of cancer, wrote:
“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
Take a moment just to feel what he’s saying there. I get that it’s blunt. But if you and I are only the result of cold chemistry, genetics and nature, then isn’t he . . . right? How can I say that suffering doesn’t belong? It’s how we got here as a species. It doesn’t make sense to say it shouldn’t be here. it just is.
The truth is, no one lives like suffering belongs. When it really comes to it, when we’re the ones putting flowers by the road, when we’re calling the ambulance, when we’re applauding the NHS, we don’t believe it’s meaningless, I don’t believe it’s natural. Removing God from the picture raises more questions for me than it answers.
So if there is a God, what would he say to a father desperately searching for an answer to save his twelve-year-old daughter from a terminal illness? What would he say to a woman whose medical condition was untreatable, left bleeding for twelve years and outcast from society? We don’t need to guess. In the historic accounts of Jesus’ life, we see Jesus when all hope seems to be lost healing the woman’s twelve-year illness and returning life to the twelve-year-old girl who died.
This is significant because Jesus claimed to be God with us. If he is, it tells us suffering matters to God, whether it’s the life of a twelve-year-old in critical condition or a twelve-year-long illness. All of it matters. None of it belongs.
You might have questions about the possibility of Jesus’ miraculous healings. But can I ask, if we say there’s no God and we rule out miracles, then don’t we also rule out any reason to say suffering is unnatural and wrong? If there is a God who can do this, then not only are miracles possible, but wouldn’t they also tell us the world should be better?
As modern people, Jesus’ miracles seem to go against the natural way the world works. But Jesus did them to restore the way the world should work. They’re the only truly natural things in an unnatural world that’s gone wrong. We can ask why, we can be angry at suffering, there is a problem with evil. It wasn’t made this way. Jesus came to rescue what’s lost and heal what’s broken.
Yet, Jesus only healed a few people. For every disease he healed, countless more have suffered. Those he healed would go on to suffer with something else. The world’s problem is far bigger than a few isolated miracles could fix. However, Jesus was reluctant to be known for his miracles alone. He was adamant that these healings were signposts for a life to come that would be beyond suffering, beyond death.
Why hasn’t God got rid of all pain now? Why bother with miraculous signs, and Jesus living a human life, and all that story about his crucifixion? Couldn’t God just press ‘delete’ on all causes of harm?
Where is the line drawn? Viruses? People cause hurt too. At the far end, with world leaders who act irresponsibly in a crisis? Or those who cause war? What about drunk drivers who carelessly kill? What about me if I’ve ever let a friend drive home tipsy? What about me if I’ve hurt someone? I don’t find that very comfortable, because I have hurt others. But would God be good if he didn’t care, if he let all the hurt I cause go un-dealt-with? It wouldn’t be fair to say that I’m an exception. Could he end suffering without ending me?
When my friend’s sister’s life was taken, her dad was quoted saying:
“We want justice. And we want our girl back.”
Both justice and hope.
In the Tate Modern, I also saw a sculpture by Anthony Gormley. It’s a plaster mold of the artist’s body. It’s untitled. It looks like any man. But the pierced heart, pierced feet and outstretched arms are obviously displaying Jesus’ crucifixion. It looks like anyone and it looks like Jesus, and that’s exactly the point. Jesus on the cross was anyone; he was humanity. He experiences human pain. He takes every regretful action I have, painful memory I’ve made, and damage I’ve done on to himself and bares it in my place. He takes the just penalty for it that I deserve, so it could be blotted out with him, so I can be justly forgiven for every wrong I’ve done. Justice and forgiveness don’t go together unless someone takes my place — and he has.
Last summer, I was talking to my parents about my aunt whose been re-diagnosed with cancer. They said something that’s stayed with me:
“You have to live as if there’s hope. There’s not really any alternative.”
Jesus’ resurrection means that hope is available. You may have questions about Jesus rising from the dead. But, to his followers, when they saw him alive, it meant solid hope. They would one day rise to new life too. If death was not the end of Jesus, then death is not the end for us. What if Jesus is really God with us? What if he came to make an end to all suffering without making end end to us?
The nurse scribbled: “I’m so sorry I could not help you. I tried so hard to save you.” But my friend’s sister was saved, in a much deeper way. She trusted in Jesus’ resurrection. She knew she’d face death, whenever it came in her life, knowing that life with him would be her reality forever after. No more suffering, no more sickness, no more sad tears. There is life in the world to come.
That doesn’t make pain easy. It certainly doesn’t answer every question. But if it’s true, it would mean this hope isn’t just wishful thinking. Would it make you wonder if you could find out?
A sermon from Sunday morning about Christianity’s hope through death
A sermon from Sunday morning about Jesus’ response to suffering: