We make theological decisions all the time: “I don’t believe God is like that”, “The Bible clearly says x…”, “Others may have different views, but I believe that the Church ought to…” We are exposed to multiple viewpoints on a whole range of issues, and have to prayerfully pick our way through them, Bible in hand, knowing that it’s best to stay humble – not least because we may well have to backtrack if we discover later on that we were probably wrong on a particular issue. The question is, what resources are out there to help us do navigate the debates?
When I heard that the Oxford theologian Bethany Sollereder had written a book on suffering, subtitled ‘Pick Your Own Theological Expedition’, I jumped at the opportunity of seeing the manuscript ahead of publication. As someone working in science and religion, I have been exposed to many talks on this subject, and read a few books but heard of many more that I do not have time to even look at. I was delighted that a such clear and humane communicator as Bethany has brought these winding paths of theological reflection together in such a way that might help ordinary people to make sense of them.
As the subtitle suggests, this is a very unique book. Each brief chapter is followed by a series of theological decisions or viewpoints, each of which lead on to a particular chapter. By following each decision in turn, the reader can gently wend their way through the theological landscape, exploring a variety of destinations. You can either explore the ramifications of your own current theological views, or follow the logic of different standpoints to see where other people may be coming from, and perhaps find some new wisdom that may help you in your own journey. It’s an excellent summary of the myriad ways of thinking about this issue, which informs without either hammering us with the trauma of suffering or dismissing its impact.
I appreciate Bethany’s aim of expanding the reader’s theological horizons, encouraging us to explore without pretending that ‘all views are equally valid’. I am also grateful that she has tried not to tug on the reader’s heartstrings too tightly, in order to leave us the head space required to engage with a decent serving of theology. Her writing is succinct, conversational and easy to read, with helpful examples. I can tell that Bethany has taught this material many times. The flow chart at the back summarises the paths through the different arguments (I gather the printed edition also contains a map), and there’s also a bibliography grouped by topic.
I found this method of exploration was an effective way to navigate and compare the range of views on God’s character and actions, and his role in suffering – which can seem at times confusingly similar, or at odds with what I have been exposed to in my own church tradition. I was also able to see the resonances between different standpoints: for example our need to express grief (chapters 4 and 19), that suffering makes us who we are (20, 24, 30 and 32), and our inability to fully understand or grasp things (4, 5, 22, 25).
What this book doesn’t do is to flag up the most effective arguments from the author’s point of view, filter out ‘liberal’, ‘heretical’ or non-Christian views, lay out all the biblical content for or against each perspective, or address questions raised by the Fall. This new approach should be very helpful for a Christian who has plenty of other resources to hand: Bible knowledge, a church community, other books and high-quality online resources, and good mentors or spiritual guides to help navigate the journey. It should also be useful for the philosophically-oriented atheist or explorer of religions who is keen to follow up some of the arguments in the book that make most sense to them, dialoguing with Christians along the way. You might disagree with the map in places, but that’s all part of the exercise of thinking deeply about this subject.
What follows is the first chapter from the book, exploring the question ‘What is God Like?’
Your journey begins as you set out from home, the road running before you smooth and straight. You walk for some time, recalling the experiences that call into question the deep realities of life. Up ahead, you can see the road branching three different ways.
The heart of the theological problem with suffering stems from God being both powerful and loving. If God is perfectly powerful, then God should be able to prevent suffering. If God is perfectly loving, God should want to prevent suffering. The Christian tradition describes God as almighty and perfectly loving, yet we still suffer.
We don’t just suffer a little bit, either. For all its goodness and beauty, this is a tearstained existence. I don’t need to recount the horrors that exist in our world because you already know many of them. You’ve read about them, watched them, and experienced them yourself. Even without the horrors we see on television, there is enough trouble in our day-to-day lives to make us wonder what God is up to and how God could allow the evils we experience.
I remember once sitting in church when despair was sitting heavy on me and trying to sing along to the chorus, “You are so good, so good, so good to me.” The words felt hollow. God’s goodness certainly did not seem evident to me. Is God really good? It is an appropriate question to ask at the beginning of our adventure, and it is one many have asked as they contemplated suffering in the world.
There are three major approaches we could take to that question. First, there is the possibility that God is perfectly good. More than just good—God is love. God is the source of all life, and God’s love is the secret wellspring of all that is. The world is not just a creative project but is the offspring of God’s overflowing love. God’s perfect will of good for the world may be impeded by various factors (we will talk about those later), but God essentially desires the well-being of the world and all that is in it. The world is not perfect for one of two reasons: either God has been opposed by some other being (like Satan), or created beings themselves reject God’s plan.
Second, we might think God is not good or loving. Perhaps good and evil run through God equally, like the yin and yang concept of Chinese philosophy. Or, like the Force from Star Wars, God only seeks to keep balance in the universe. Perhaps God is entirely neutral—neither good nor evil in essence. God is, on this reading, only the empowering source of life. Maybe God is simply not interested in this world or its troubles; God created the world and set the heavenly spheres spinning, but now God is off somewhere doing other things. Perhaps God is busy creating new universes, and our troubles do not reach the divine attention. Whatever the reason, evil exists because God does not oppose it or doesn’t care.
The third option is that God simply does not exist. Therefore, the world is one that is indifferent to suffering because there is no loving or caring being to look out for us. There is not even a neutral being to ignore us. We simply are in this vast, beautiful, and terrifying cosmos, inhabiting a pale blue dot of a planet.
There is the agnostic approach, too—that we don’t know what God is like or if God exists. I won’t include that as an option because it cannot go beyond its initial statement of “there is not sufficient evidence to decide.” (I’ve only included options where people make claims about reality.) But an open-minded agnostic could read all the paths with some benefit, because being better informed about the options is never a bad thing. In other areas where there is not enough evidence to make a final decision—like whether gravity is quantum or classical—the lack of deciding evidence does not make being well-informed a less noble pursuit.
It’s time to decide: What do you believe God is like?
God is perfectly good and loves us. (Turn to ch. 2.)
God exists but doesn’t love us. (Turn to ch. 13.)
God does not exist. (Turn to ch. 15.)
Extract taken from Why is There Suffering? Pick Your Own Theological Expedition by Bethany Sollereder, 192 pages, £9.50. Copyright © Nov 2021 by Bethany Sollereder. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
Other resources on this topic are listed here.