In the wake of incomprehensible acts of evil, like the Aurora massacre, many Christians despair at ever making sense of why God allows so much evil to occur. There are "answers" of course – on a philosophical level it is not difficult to see that evil is a by-product of free-will – but these answers provide scant comfort when a person is suffering, or is trying to comfort someone who is.
For generations past, placing suffering into a proper context may have been easier. Until the development of technology – the harnessing of power on a scale previously unimaginable, and the advent of modern medicine – life for most people who walked the earth was harsh, painful and all too often brief. Today, life expectancy in developed countries is twice what it once was, and access to health care has allowed many people to live comfortable and healthy lives where once they would not. With the potential to live longer and better lives, and the wealth and leisure to do more with that time, it is natural that we develop expectations – specifically, expectations to live long, full and productive lives.
The shift in context follows from this change; unlike generations of old, whose constant exposure to suffering kept them focused on the life to come, we have moved from seeing this life as a precursor to what comes next, to seeing it as an end in itself.
Some say that God uses pain for that exact purpose: he doesn’t want us to be comfortable here because this is not our final destination. We were made for something much greater, something that requires time to acquire, that demands a slow but progressive development. It simply won't serve, in the end, for life to be too good here, because we risk losing something even greater in the process. Trying too hard to make this life perfect is, actually, counter-productive. As Jesus said: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25)
At first glance, this may seem paradoxical and foolish. It is nonsense to those who are fully entrenched in "having it all" here. But it actually does make sense.
Consider: we see from nature that development is progressive. Babies do not appear full-grown at the moment of conception. They go through a period of amazing development in a self-contained environment in which all their needs are met. But they cannot remain there, however safe, comfortable and happy they may be. Indeed, when the appropriate period of development is over, the confines of the womb would cause them to experience pain, or worse, if they do not continue along in their development by emerging into the world. If you could converse with a baby about to descend the birth canal, he would no doubt refuse the request. What else could he do? With his “universe” limited to the gentle confines of his mother’s body, punctuated by the steady beating of her heart, he has no frame of reference to make sense of the pain he is about to experience, as his head descends the canal, or why enduring the pain makes sense in a larger setting. Trying to explain it would be of little avail – how can he understand that life here involves so much more – what would things like adventure, romance, relationship, fine dining me to one whose existence is so primitive, so limited? “Thanks, but no thanks,” would be his reply. “I think I’ll just stick it out here.”
Move forward just a few years and not much is different. A toddler being trundled off to his first day of pre-K will naturally resist the effort. Home is safe and filled with all the things he wants to do, and all the people that matter. Often, he is the center of attention, the center of his parents’ “universe.” Why would he want to suffer the indignity of being a small part of a big group, of sharing his toys, of having to follow the directions of some stranger who thinks she knows better? And again, we would have scant success in trying to show him that this is day one of the process by which he will eventually emerge as an educated and capable adult, ready to take on the world and make his small (and sometimes not so small) mark in it?
As we move increasingly away from our Christian roots and into a secular, post-Christian culture, it is sometimes difficult to remember that this present life is itself but a step in the process. We were not meant to remain here eternally. And although we cannot help but know this – the utter certainty of death cannot escape anyone – we act as if it is somehow not true, or perhaps delude ourselves that it is not true for us. Or we medicate or distract ourselves through constant activity so that we don’t have to think about it. But when hardship comes, when tragedy strikes, for a brief moment at least we are left to wonder, in the darkness of the night, what are we doing here?
For those who believe that this world is all there is, or was, or ever will be, the despair cannot be fought off. Without the hope of a better life to come, and a confidence that the wrongs we have suffered will be repaid - that justice will be done - there is no reason for hope. Oblivion is what awaits the end of suffering.
But Heaven is not a concept or a state of mind; it is a destination, a final dwelling, the completion of a process. We were given life, intelligence and free will, and we used these gifts to rebel against our maker. We stuck our finger in His eye and asked what He planned to do about it. We then went about living as if He really wasn’t there. By bringing death into the world, God actually gave us much better than we deserved, for it is through death that we can shake off this worldly corruption and find our way back to Him. Can you imagine the horror of living eternally in these limited, corruptible and aging bodies? But He must do the work of making us ready to re-unite with Him. We cannot earn our way there, no matter how “good” we think we are, because we cannot make ourselves ready to interact with perfection. And so, God uses things such as relationships and the raising of children to get us to understand that the next step of our development is to stop looking inward at ourselves – at what we want and think we need – and to look instead at others. That’s why the greatest commandment is to love God and then love our neighbor. That’s why in losing ourselves in others we can gain more than we can ever fathom. The part about loving ourselves we already know, all too well. To unite with God, we need to learn, from the source of all love, what true love - not self centered "what's in it for me love" - actually entails.
Yes, there is pain here, and much of it is impossible for us to understand. But there is also more. The pain the baby feels in the birth process is not the end of the story. The child’s discomfort in moving into society is accompanied by the opportunity for gain as well. So too with us. Despite the pain, we have a date with destiny, a moment at which all can be made right. With our assent to His gift through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God make us ready to reunite with Him. He can do a work in us.
But there is an alternative: if we persist in self-will, in ignoring and pushing God away, He will honor that decision as well. Eternal separation from God – hell by any other name - is a terrible prospect, one that makes the worst tragedy here seem mild by comparison.