Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Hitchens/Prager/D'Souza Debate Part III

This is a part of an ongoing series based on a debate between Christopher Hitchens, Dennis Prager and Dinesh D’Souza.

Question 3: Does the bitter suffering of mankind support the notion that Judaism is true, that is Christianity true, or that the new atheism is true? Christopher Hitchens clearly believes that no god worthy of being called a god would allow the suffering that we experience in the world. Prager maintains that part of the Hebraic answer to this question is that we cannot fully understand suffering in the world, but that God does. (Certainly you see this in the book of Job.) Dinesh D’Souza more or less agrees with Prager’s position.

What I would add to the problem of suffering is that Christianity deals with suffering not only by saying God has a deeper understanding of life and a deeper set of purposes than we have, and not only is suffering in some way necessitated by human free will and by the drama God is playing out in the universe, but that the Christian answer to the problem of suffering relates to Jesus’ incarnation itself.

God’s answer to suffering is not only His superior knowledge, power, position, and right, but that He Himself has suffered. In the incarnation, God became man. He came and lived among us. He put aside the power, prestige, perks and pleasure of His deity and experienced the pain, suffering, indignity, distress, weariness, anxiety, and even death that we experience. And for God, this would have been a far greater contrast to His prior experience than any change from pleasure to pain is for us. God would have been perfectly happy and had a perfect existence both within and beyond time. By becoming incarnate within time, His change from omniscience to human senescence would have been worse than a human being becoming deaf, blind, and dumb. His change from being able to do and accomplish anything within His own nature and will to the frailty and impotence of human life would have been a far greater change than any paralyzing or crippling disease that grips and terrorizes the poor human frame. God’s descent from absolute omniscience to the limited knowledge, perspective and ability of human beings was in proportion greater than any human descent into dementia or Alzheimer’s. From the infinite to the extremely finite He descended. And beyond that, He lived a life far poorer and more difficult than most western human beings are familiar with, and died a death more painful and ignoble than that suffered by most human beings. On top of all this, He went from being sinless and honorable to bearing the crushing weight of the sins of the entire world. The emotional pain would have been greater than the physical pain. We tend to take all of this for granted, and yet I believe it was so. C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, recently remarked in a radio interview that Christ’s resurrection may have actually been a more painful experience than His death because of the re-entry into a pain-filled world from the perfect paradise of heaven.

The Christian’s response to suffering is that God knows suffering; He has suffered as we suffer, suffered with us as we suffer, and suffered for us as we suffer. Stephen Lawhead has repeatedly pointed out in his adventure novels, especially the novel Byzantium, how different this makes Christianity from other religions. The idea of a deity that suffers with and for human beings is so different from the disinterested and triumphalist deities of paganism.

As Dinesh D’Souza alluded in the debate, we have to take into account the new heaven and the new earth that is yet to come. Christianity does not teach, as Christopher Hitchens believes, that the universe has been filled with millions of years of incredible suffering and will face millions of years yet to come of incredible suffering. Instead, the time from creation to God’s re-creation of a new heaven and a new earth will, from the perspective of eternity, seem like a brief period of time. In eternity, God will right every wrong, dry every tear, reward every truly good deed, and deal justly with every wrong. Thankfully, He has already dealt with our wrongs through Christ if we will but accept His mercy and grace.

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