Hurricanes, Holocausts, and Other Horrors:
Three Theological Responses to Suffering
By Martin Thielen
I’m a big fan of Ken Burns. His films on American history, including The Civil War and The Vietnam War, are among the best documentaries ever made. So when his new film The U.S. and the Holocaust aired on PBS in mid-September, I faithfully watched each episode.
The U.S. and the Holocaust examines the rise of Nazism, the savage horrors of the Holocaust, and the (often inadequate) response of the United States. For people of faith, the film also raises difficult, long-standing, and still unresolved questions about the providence of God in a world of massive suffering.
Less than two weeks after viewing The U.S. and the Holocaust, I watched heart-wrenching images and stories about the devastating and deadly impacts of Hurricane Ian. Since then, other stories of human misery have filled the news, from the ongoing war in Ukraine (including threats of nuclear “Armageddon”), to the seemingly never-ending carnage of Covid. During that same time frame I also encountered smaller, more personal examples of suffering, including a close friend’s scary cancer diagnosis and a story about two children killed in a vicious dog attack.
In short, the past six weeks have been business as usual on planet Earth. On any given day, multiple examples of tragic suffering can be found in the daily news and in our personal lives. All of which begs the perennial question: In the face of hurricanes, holocausts, and other horrors, how do people navigate faith? Although an oversimplification, at least three religious responses to suffering can be found. In this month’s post I will briefly review each one.
In the Face of Suffering, Some Believers Abandon Faith
On his first night at a Nazi concentration camp, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel saw a wagonload of babies thrown into a ditch of fire. He later wrote about his experiences at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death camps, “Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”
Several months ago an atheist in his nineties told me, “The massive amount of suffering I have seen in my life—from the Holocaust in my teens to COVID in my nineties—is the ultimate God slayer for me. In a world filled with needless and horrific pain, I cannot believe in God, although I wish I could.”
For centuries the church has taught that God is all-loving and all-powerful. And yet, in spite of such lofty beliefs, suffering continues unabated. Examples abound including famine, war, pandemics, cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and terrorism. Given these realities, religious critics say that (at least) one of the following statements must be true:
- God is not all-powerful.
- God is not all good.
- God is neither all-powerful nor all good.
- God doesn’t exist.
When I talk to people who have lost faith or read articles and books by unbelievers, their number one reason for abandoning faith is the reality of suffering. No matter how hard they try, they cannot reconcile belief in God with the massive suffering in our world.
For example, I recently read an old book (but new to me) by Charles Templeton. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Templeton was a well-known evangelist and close friend of Billy Graham. However, Templeton eventually lost his faith, primary because of the problem of suffering. In his book he asks, “How can God bear the sickness, suffering, and death of the multiplied millions of men, women, children, animals, birds, and other sensate creatures, in every part of the world, in every century since time began?” Templeton then answers his own question. “It is obvious that there cannot be a loving God.” The title of his book is Farewell to God.
In the Face of Suffering, Some Believers Defend Faith
On the Sunday after the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, I said in my sermon:
We must remember that God does not cause suffering. God does not get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll give a seven-year-old girl a case of leukemia today, send a massive heart attack to a fifty-seven-year-old man, and send a category four tornado to wipe out a community. And then, to finish off the day, I’ll send a deeply disturbed, hate-filled white supremist to a black church in Charleston and kill off nine people during their Wednesday night prayer meeting.”
People of faith instinctively understand that unmerited suffering undermines faith in a loving and providential God. Therefore, in the face of unexplained pain, we often try to defend God and Christianity. Many of those defenses are unhelpful. For example, “God works in mysterious ways,” “God is in control,” It must be God’s will,” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
Other theological defenses and explanations for suffering are at least marginally more helpful. Below are a few I’ve heard (and used) over the years:
- When it comes to suffering, we “see through the glass dimly.”
- Much of the world’s suffering is caused by human sin.
- The laws of nature, which are necessary for life to exist, sometimes hurt us.
- The crucified God joins us in our suffering.
- God comforts us in our pain, both directly and indirectly.
- The church is called by God to help alleviate suffering.
- Suffering is an opportunity to grow as human beings.
- In the final kingdom of God, suffering will come to an end.
Although these (and other) defenses of faith in the face of suffering are modestly helpful, in the end they have limited value. The hard reality remains that in a world full of unrelenting and massive suffering, it is extremely difficult to defend belief in a personal, all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, interventionist, miracle-working, prayer-answering, providential God.
In the Face of Suffering, Some Believers Redefine Faith
In his book The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In, Jeffrey Frantz writes:
“The unspeakable horror of the Holocaust renders the conventional God of our Judeo-Christian tradition unacceptable. The theistic God in the sky, the God of supernatural theism, the God who intervenes from outside the universe and, then, only when God chooses, should have died forever at Auschwitz.
However, it must be said that the problem is not with God; it is with the inadequate conception of God that human kind has been living with for centuries on end. Not only is this God not believable; this God’s alleged ways of operating . . . simply do not measure up. (pp. 196–97)”
Frantz’s solution to the problem of suffering (and the many other inadequacies of traditional Christianity) is to revise faith “to imagine a new, more adequate conception of the divine.” He advocates a divine model of panentheism, which he describes as “God as Spirit, as infinite love and energy, as an abiding presence, and as endless mystery.”
Frantz is certainly not alone. Through the years, in response to the problem of suffering, many people of faith have attempted to redefine traditional beliefs about God. For example, in his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose son died of a rare genetic disease, rejected the concept of an all-powerful God. He said that while God is deeply pained by human suffering, God cannot do anything about it. In response, one critic said, “If that’s who God is, he should resign and let someone competent take over.”
Clearly, a lot of people don’t take kindly to reimagining long-held and deeply loved conceptions about God, especially the idea of God’s providential care. But in the face of horrific suffering, maintaining traditional theistic views of God has become impossible for large numbers of believers. After observing endless and unfettered suffering, both natural and man-made, their only viable conclusion is that God does not work in the universe through supernatural intervention. As a result, a growing number of people are redefining God as a nontheistic, evolutionary, mysterious, life-force, energy-force, love-force s/Spirit, with all the ambiguity those concepts suggest.
I don’t pretend to have an answer to the ancient problem of faith and suffering. Far smarter people than me have tried—and failed—to adequately explain it. However, three things seem clear to me. First, in spite of the theological challenges of suffering, I am not ready to abandon faith. Second, I find traditional theological explanations of suffering (including the ones I used to teach) inadequate for the twenty-first century. Third, the only viable option I see for dealing with the problem of suffering (and many other challenges to traditional Christianity) is to engage in a major rethinking of faith, including our conceptions about God.
Revisioning ancient faith for the modern world is not an easy task. No simple answers exist. The process will be long, complicated, conflicted, and uncertain. Such theological work is not for the faint of heart. In spite of these daunting challenges, I’m glad to be on the journey. And I’m delighted that you have joined me along the way.
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