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With All This Suffering, How Could There Be a God? Tim Keller Responds

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Today, we are revisiting The Veritas Forum discussion at Colombia University where Pastor Tim Keller was also asked by Professor David Eisenbach how there could be a God when there is so much suffering in the world.


As you might remember from our recent article ‘What Do Christians Have Against Homosexuality?’ in 2011, American pastor, theologian and best-selling author, Tim Keller sat down for a question and answer session with historian David Eisenbach of The Veritas Forum at Colombia University. Today, we are revisiting that same forum discussion where Keller was also asked by Eisenbach how there could be a God when there is so much suffering in the world.

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After illustrating his roots of being raised in the Chrisitan faith, Eisenbach shared that he ended up leaving 12 years of religious education as an atheist. “The sticking point in all of that regarding religion for me was the Holocaust. I looked at that and said, ‘How is it possible that 6 million people could be exterminated in the course of a war that took 80 million lives and there could be a God?'”

That’s a great question. And one that needs answering. “How in the world could God allow that kind of evil and suffering?”

Keller compassionately points out that the same question could be asked of the parents of a two-year-old hit and killed by a car, just as one can regarding the Holocaust. Suffering is suffering, and all levels and extremes of it force Chrisitan and atheist alike to ask that very question. Why doesn’t God stop the suffering?

Highlighting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail, Keller states, “[King] says, ‘How do you know a human deed is unjust? Or a law? … Only if there is a higher law that says it’s unjust.’ Otherwise, what you’ve got out there is the small eat the weak … If there’s no God, you and I came here through stronger organisms eating the weak organism. Natural selection. That’s what life’s about … Now deep in our hearts, we feel, ‘no that’s not right!’ Now, the question is why?”

“Now, what Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying is, ‘We believe that the strong eating the weak is unjust and wrong because there is a higher law.’ If there was no higher law,” Keller states and then asks Eisenbach, “How do you even really justify your outrage?”

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Eisenbach rightly points out, “And yet the strong eat the weak every single day. So, why doesn’t God intervene and say, ‘You know what, you can’t kill all those people. Stop it.'”

Keller points out that there are two responses to that question:

1. God intervening doesn’t make it any easier.

Speaking toward and from a hypothetical atheistic and evolutionary worldview, Keller states: “On what basis am I morally outraged? If the strong eating the weak is natural, so what. So they did it. Stronger nations eat weaker nations … so, what’s the big deal? What’s the problem? … That’s fair. That’s not a complete answer, but it’s fair to say, ‘Now as an atheist, how am I dealing with evil and suffering?’ Now I really have only a visceral reaction to it. I don’t even have a real cogent warrant for saying, ‘this has absolutely got to stop.’ Other than, I don’t like it.”

In short, without a higher moral law—a.k.a. God and good vs. evil—and instead, a world view of evolution, then it shouldn’t bother us that the stronger are eating the weak. That’s just how evolution works.

2. If Jesus really came to earth and suffered on the cross, His suffering will always have been greater.

Now, from a gospel standpoint, Keller shares an interesting point,”If God really came to earth in Jesus Christ, and the suffering He went through on the cross voluntarily, would have been far beyond my suffering. Now, what does that do? Even after you believe that God would have come down and become vulnerable to suffering and death, that does not yet give us an answer to the question of what the reason is that God allows evil and suffering. But, it does tell us what the reason isn’t. It can’t be that He doesn’t love us or He wouldn’t have come down and gotten involved. It can’t be that He doesn’t care or He wouldn’t be involved.”

While a helpful insight from Keller, Eisenbach still wasn’t satisfied, probing again for Keller’s estimate on why God is still allowing suffering: “Why didn’t He come down and stop the Holocaust?”

Keller finishes by stating, “At this point, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: ‘If you can’t think of a reason, does that mean there really can’t be one?'”

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Continuing Keller philosophically suggests, “If you look into a pup tent and I ask you, ‘Do you see any St. Bernards?’ And if you don’t see any St. Bernards … then you can safely conclude that there are no St. Bernards in the tent. Because if there were … you would probably see them. But if you look into a pup tent and I say, ‘Do you see any [gnats]?’ … And if you say, ‘I don’t see any [gnats].’ That doesn’t mean there aren’t any [gnats], because if there were you couldn’t see them.”

“When you say, ‘Because I can’t think of any good reason why God would continue to allow evil and suffering to happen, therefore there can’t be one,’ you’re assuming whatever reasons there would be are more like St. Bernards than [gnats]. But why should there be?”

Keller finishes with, “You can’t assume that just because you can’t think of a good reason why God hasn’t stopped it yet, there can’t be any. And the gospel says, that whatever reason that might be—it can’t be a lack of love.”