Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of ten books, including The Reason for God (Dutton, 2007) and The Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008). In Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, Oct.), the 63-year old pastor tackles the perpetually vexing problem of evil—if God is good, why does it exist?
Why does God allow suffering?
There are two answers. The first is God made us with free will and we turned away from him. The fallenness of the world brings suffering. But the level most people are concerned with is, why does God allow my suffering? The Bible is insistent we not try to answer that question. When Job is suffering, he is never told why. It is his friends who try to come up with answers, but God condemns the friends. So at one level, the Bible says suffering is random, pointless, unjust, and unfair, but it is something you have to accept. It says your particular suffering is mysterious.
There are a number of classics on this topic already, including C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain (HarperOne) and Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Random House). What do you bring that is new and different?
Kushner’s book tried to solve the mystery of suffering: If God is all-powerful God should be able to stop suffering. If God is good he should stop suffering. What Kushner does is take a theological point of view, saying God is good, but not all-powerful, so he can’t stop it. That is one of the most unsatisfying books on suffering I have ever read. It says God is not only someone you can’t blame for your suffering, but you also have no solution. Lewis’s is a fine book, more philosophical. I wanted to write a theological, a philosophical, and a personal how-to-get-through-it book.
The question of evil has caused people to turn away from religion altogether. What does this book say to those people?
There is a tendency to put Christianity on trial and say, “How does Christianity answer all these problems?” But if you reject Christianity, you still have to deal with suffering and evil and injustice. Let’s compare Christianity to every other view of things--Buddhism, Hinduism, secularism, atheism, paganism. Christianity [deals with the problem] better than anything else, I believe. Arguably, the secular view is the worst to help you understand it. There is an essay in a book by Richard Schweder that really made the penny drop for me. He wrote that modern Western society dis-empowers you to deal with suffering, says you need experts to help you--therapists and other professionals. But religion says suffering is an opportunity for you to become a better person.
You seem to be saying mystery is an essential component of suffering. Why must mystery and suffering go together?
Imagine you were a follower of Jesus in his lifetime and you loved him and you said, this guy is going to put things right. Suddenly, he is captured, tried, tortured, and he is dying on the cross. You would say, “I don’t see how God could bring any good out of this.” But we have an inkling of that good now because we have the Bible and Christian history. We have some idea of why God did allow that horrible suffering to happen to Jesus. Everything that ever happens is like that. It won’t be mysterious in the end, but right now it has to be mysterious because it is in God’s counsel and we can’t figure that out. You just have to accept the mystery of it.