Our Most Important Question
In this week’s issue of the New Yorker the critic James Wood reviews Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Like Ehrman, Wood was once a believer. For Wood, as for Ehrman, it was what theologians call “the problem of evil” (“the hygienic phrase itself bespeaks a certain distance from extreme suffering,” Wood writes) that led him to give up his faith. One day when he was a teenager, Wood drew up a list of reasons for belief and another of reasons against it. High on the second list: the inefficacy of prayer.
Here was a demonstrable case of promises made (if you have faith, you can move a mountain) but not kept (the mountain not only stays put but suddenly erupts and consumes a few villages). During my teens, two members of my parents’ congregation died of cancer, despite all the prayers offered up on their behalf. When I looked at the congregants kneeling on cushions, their heads bent to touch the wooden pews, it seemed to me as if they were literally butting their heads against a palpable impossibility.
Wood could find no satisfactory Christian solution to this problem, or to the problem of pain more generally. In the face of suffering, his fellow believers seemed to become maddeningly vague.
Suffering is a mystery, I was told, as is God’s absence in the face of suffering. But this is what I was told when prayers failed to make their mark: the old “incomprehensibility” routine. It seemed to me that the Gospels, central to my family life, made some fairly specific promises and laid on us some fairly specific obligations; yet that specificity could simply go on holiday whenever God himself seemed to have gone on holiday. (“God moves in mysterious ways.”)
Wood examines (not always carefully, it must be said) the arguments of traditional theodicy and finds them all wanting. He does have some sympathy for those who appeal to heaven as a compensation for the sorrows of this life:
Heaven, one of the tenderest verses in the Bible has it, is where God will wipe away all tears from our faces. In her novel “
Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson adds, in a line just as tender, if a little sterner, “It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” Robinson, herself a devout Protestant, means that the immense surge of human suffering in the world will need, and deserves, a great deal of heavenly love and repair; it is as close as her novel comes to righteous complaint. But one could also say, more skeptically, that Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world’s suffering—that, theologically speaking, Heaven is “exactly what will be required.” In the end, Heaven, it seems, is the only tenable response to the problem of evil. It is where God’s mysterious plan will be revealed; it is where the poor and the downtrodden, the sick and the tortured, will be healed; it is where everything that we went through on earth will suddenly seem “worth it.”
Wood does not mention Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe salvi, which makes a similar point with memorable force.
Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.
Every tear will be wiped away. But also: All that is hidden will be revealed, a prospect that is both reassuring and terrifying. The alternative is yet more terrifying. If there is no Last Judgment, no settling of accounts, then we are left with a brutal pragmatism: beneath the language of right and wrong, there is only what we—as individuals or as a community—can get away with. In that case, all that is hidden does not matter. Or as Czesław Miłosz put it, “A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”
The problem with heaven, Wood argues, is that it’s incompatible with another pillar of Christian theodicy: freedom. Free will entails the possibility of sin, and sin leads to suffering. But in heaven, of course, there will be neither sin nor suffering. So:
Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God’s will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, “worth” all that pain and suffering?
The difficulty can be recast in terms of the continuity of the self. If we will be so differently constituted in Heaven as to be strangers to sin, then no meaningful connection will exist between the person who suffers here and the exalted soul who will enjoy the great system of rewards and promises and tears wiped from faces: our faces there will not be the faces we have here.
It is tempting to respond that we Christians claim to know very little about what heaven will be like, but that would no doubt sound to Wood like another shifty appeal to “mystery.” A better response has to do with the nature of freedom itself. For Christians, heaven is not the annulment of freedom but the fulfillment of it. The dignity of human beatitude depends on the drama of the life that goes before it, and the choices that shape that drama take place in time, which is freedom’s element. Outside of time, there are no more choices to be made, but only the full, immediate vision of what we have chosen.