Hard Pictures and Burning Hearts
A few days ago one of my friends on Facebook shared a disturbing picture. I won’t post it here, because of it’s graphic nature, but I do believe it’s an important picture to see. I’ll link to it here for any who want to see it. The picture depicts a small, starving African child. He has almost no muscle left on him. He crouches, curled up in a fetal position with arms and legs like a skeleton’s, skin stretched over bones without anything in between. I shuddered when I saw it. It was horrifying. Children should never become like this. Human beings should never be allowed to waste away to nothing like this. I was reminded of the graphic pictures shown at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. That was the only other place I’ve ever seen living humans in such an unnatural state.
At the bottom of the picture, in plain white letters, were the words “Smile, Jesus loves you.”
I should probably step back a bit and explain about my friend who posted the picture. In High School we knew each other fairly well. We made videos together in Video Tech, and we generally had fun when we were together. I haven’t seen him in years since graduation but I keep up with him somewhat through Facebook. He grew up in the Mormon Church, but a few years ago he became an atheist. I don’t think he’d be offended if I called him an “angry” atheist. He’s not the type who walks around quietly letting people know that “We’re all entitled to our own beliefs” or that “Religion has it’s place too, if you can believe in it.” He is the furious type, the kind who let people know bluntly that God is not real, and if he does exist he’s a monster. He posts pictures and status updates to that effect every now and then. I’ve never commented on them, but I’ve watched as others have. I think the internet is one of the worst places to have a civil discussion about religion (or just about anything, really). I try to stay out of it. Most of his “shocking” statuses are just bait to try and pull Christians into a fight, and I wasn’t going to take the bait. But this status made me pause.
Did I say pause? That’s not strong enough. The picture stopped me in my tracks. I stared it for almost a minute. The horror of such suffering isn’t easy to put away. Perhaps if I had only glanced at it I could have kept scrolling downwards until it disappeared; but once I started looking I couldn’t look away. It wouldn’t have been right.
Above the picture he had written his own little commentary: “Part of your ‘god’s’ plan?” They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case they’re right; he didn’t need to say anything else. His argument lay there, glowing on the monitor screen. It was plain as day. If God is good and has a plan for our lives, then why is this child dying a slow, agonizing death?
I wanted to say something. I wanted to explain what I knew, what I head read in my theological books. About how most suffering is caused by man and by sin, about free will and the consequences of it, about how we can’t see God’s plan from down here and we have to have faith…but as my cursor hovered over the comment button my mind went blank. I didn’t know what to say.
I want to note here that my faith in God was and is not shaken. I knew then what I still know now: that God is real, and that he is good. I did not feel doubt; but I did feel helpless. I don’t know the answer, and I knew what few answers I do have would not satisfy him.
Several people had commented already. Some just agreed, or joked around. But there were one or two who actually tried to answer his accusing question. One of them said that we can be at peace about suffering because we know that it is part of God’s plan, and will turn out for good. My friend didn’t take that garbage for a second, and fired back with a comment of his own.
“…why must such a being have a plan that would involve such terrible suffering? Where is the morality that the pious claim to love so much. Can anyone truly and honestly say that they think this is acceptable? Would anyone wish this upon another being? The answer should be a resounding “NO.” Yet it is okay when it is part of a plan set in motion by their diety? Why worship a being who requires such evil? I will never do it and I wish that the rest of humanity would see this way.”
Hard words, words that felt like lead weights on my heart. Again, I did not doubt; but I was burdened by the fact that I had no answer for him. I’m sure if I analyzed his words carefully I could come up with a logical and scripturally correct response that would satisfy myself. But I didn’t need to satisfy my own faith: I wanted to do something for his. Here is someone who, in his own way, is seeking after the truth. He sees the evil in the world around us and it burns in his heart. I didn’t want to win an argument; I wanted to speak to that burning heart.
A day later I realized how, perhaps, I could.
You see my friend betrayed himself in that comment. His argument is that if there was a good and loving God then he would not allow such evil, such injustice, to happen on this Earth. But the argument itself is meaningless unless there is in fact a God. If there is no God then why is this child’s suffering evil? If there is no God then why is it unjust? Why does this picture make my friend so angry? Why does this kind of suffering upset him? From a purely naturalistic standpoint this is life as normal on Earth. People suffer, people die. From a cold Darwinian standpoint you might even say that if that child was fit to survive he would have. As a Christian I know why this picture upsets me; it upsets me because it’s wrong for children, made in the image of God, to starve alone in the streets when there is food enough to save him. This is sin, this is evil, and this is an outrage! It would still be wrong even if I didn’t feel that it was. But why does this picture upset my friend? By what grounds does he stand in judgment and say that this is “unacceptable”? He obviously believes in right and wrong; otherwise his objection would be meaningless. But how can we say that this child’s suffering is wrong unless there is an objective Right and Wrong that is outside of and apart from ourselves?
Trying to explain how suffering is not really suffering is folly. It is suffering! It is wrong! Perhaps in God’s plan there is a reason for this child to die, but I cannot see that reason, and until I have one I must stand by my angry atheist friend and say “This is EVIL, pure and simple!” But after we have stood together and proclaimed this I have to turn to him and ask: “I know why I think this is wrong, but why do you?” Perhaps this will make him think. Perhaps it will only make him angry. But I will ask.
As for all here who call themselves believers I have a different question to ask: “What are we going to do about this evil?” I’ll talk more about that on Wednesday.