My nephew Lukas is one of the sweetest little boys you could ever meet. He cares for people way more than I do, and in that sense I have a lot to learn from him. There are so many stories I could share about this little dude but the one that comes right to my mind is the Father’s Day song. One Father’s Day, Lukas and his siblings were singing a song they made up for my brother (their father). When they had finished, Lukas looked around at his mom and I and started singing it for her and then for me just so we wouldn’t be left out. It totally made no sense but that little dude wanted everyone to be included.
If anyone could “deserve” a happy healthy life, it’d be Lukas. But Lukas has Leukemia. He was diagnosed just before his first birthday and has been going in and out of remission and getting all sorts of treatments for over three years now. His hair starts to come back and he starts to look like a normal little boy, then his next round of chemo and steroids comes and knocks him back down. The treatments mess with his bones and make them weak, so weak that he broke his leg going down a slide and had to walk around in a cast for the entire holiday season. He was our little Tiny Tim for Christmas that year.
Watching a beautiful little child suffer through a disease like this really puts your heart through the wringer. Even now as I write this I can’t help but tear up. So where’s God in all this? Should the fact that my nephew has Leukemia cause me to doubt that God exists? I mean would a good God really allow a child to suffer like this? And this is just one child in one family… there are countless examples of suffering going on right now all over the world. Isn’t this evidence that there is no God above us who cares?
But wait, there’s more! As if Lukas’s case wasn’t bad enough with the information I’ve already given, what I haven’t told you is that his dad is a pastor. A pastor! If the God that Lukas’s family worships existed, wouldn’t He take care of his own? Shouldn’t a pastor’s kid be the happiest, healthiest kid in the world? If God is good, if He’s really this powerful creator, and if He knows everything, why do bad things like this happen? And don’t give me that “free will” line! What does free will have to do with Leukemia? Leukemia isn’t a moral agent, God didn’t give Leukemia the free choice to be harmful or beneficial. Leukemia didn’t abuse it’s free will and cause all this suffering to little Lukas.
Really think about it, as a Christian I believe in an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing Creator God. If this God existed, being the source of all good, He’d have to hate bad or evil, right? Being good Himself, He’d want to stop evil. Being all-powerful and all-knowing, He’d know about all the evil out there and He’d be able to stop it. Yet my nephew is suffering evil in the form of Leukemia. Since this is the case, shouldn’t I change my mind about this God? Isn’t this evidence that my God doesn’t exist?
For the Sake of Argument
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I felt the force of this conclusion. If I take my nephew’s Leukemia as a defeater for my belief in God, now what? What becomes of my thoughts on Lukas, reality, my personal experience etc.? Now that I’m free from the shackles of Christian theism- what’s left?
The force of the argument against God was felt because of some basic presuppositions I held as a Christian, namely that Lukas has intrinsic value as an image bearer of the Living God. I was able to affirm the argument and in turn disavow my faith in God because I felt empathy for Lukas which gave rise to doubt and anger towards God. I was able to use my reason to appraise the argument and follow it’s premises to it’s conclusion. I was able to use my creaturely agency to choose to believe one proposition over another. All the while being guided by the principle that I ought to believe what’s true.
But now, on an atheistic worldview, what’s left of Lukas? He’s matter in motion. He has no intrinsic value, he’s just star dust- a cosmic accident. He hasn’t been knit together in my sister-in-laws womb, he isn’t made in the image of God- he’s just stuff. And what’s more, his Leukemia isn’t an evil at all, it’s just matter that shouldn’t be where it is. But even to say that cancer shouldn’t be somewhere is to presuppose a teleology- a purpose that I’m really just reading onto reality. Without a purpose giver, there’s no purpose.
So I find that if I were to use the phenomena of Lukas’s Leukemia to disbelieve in God then I can’t make sense of my original objections to Leukemia. Without a standard of goodness, I have no reference point by which to judge something as evil. All the love I had for Lukas turns out to be a biological adaptation to help my family DNA survive and multiply. Sympathy and compassion for Lukas is reduced to a survival instinct.
But if we push it even farther, all my thoughts, whether love for Lukas or hate for cancer, are merely the result of cerebral biochemistry. They’re not “my thoughts”- there is no real “I” and “thoughts” aren’t things I have or do, they happen to me, they’re the result of random chance acting on matter over time. What I thought was my mind is really just chemicals fizzing in my brain.
The argument against God from my nephew’s Leukemia proves too much. If I were to affirm it’s conclusion- that there is no God- then I couldn’t make sense of it’s premises; it’s like sawing off the branch that I was sitting on. Not only do I lose my belief in Lukas’s value and personhood, I lose my justification for reasoning, for loving, for agency, and for hating evil.
A Christian Response
I deny the conclusion of the argument because of the skeptical implications that follow. But at a deeper level, I see that for the argument to have any force, the Christian worldview must be presupposed. For me to be upset that Lukas is suffering evil, I have to believe that Lukas is valuable. I have to believe that suffering is wrong, that evil is bad. I have to believe in Good. I have to believe that I’m a rational being who can apprehend logical laws and follow a logical implication. I have to believe that I have a will that allows me to act and change my mind based on new information.
So should I change my mind about God? That’s smuggling in a moral presupposition. I should believe the truth, I ought to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But where does that come from? Moral imperatives make sense if we’ve been made with a purpose by a Creator God, but where would I get that from if there is no God?
There’s a mountain of presuppositions that this argument is built on, but the problem is that these are Christian presuppositions. They make sense if the Christian worldview is true, but not if it’s false. In order for me to believe that Leukemia is evil, I must believe in God, so I can never use the evil of Leukemia to disbelieve in God.
Then What Do We Do Now?
So if I can’t use Lukas’s Leukemia as an argument against God, how can I make sense of it? If God is good, and powerful, and knows everything, then why is there evil? Well, first of all, we need to distinguish between moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil, in a Christian worldview, is sin. Sin against God and against God’s image bearers. Natural evil is a punishment for our moral evil: God cursed the world because of our rebellion.
Did God have to curse the world? Well, no, it doesn’t look like He had to. Then why did He? Why is the curse still playing out everyday? Who sinned to cause Lukas to get cancer, was it him or his parents? It’s not that Lukas sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
At this point you might be thinking, “ok, that’s John 9:3, that’s about a specific blind man in the Bible, not Lukas so don’t try to apply that to him, Park.” But I think we can apply this verse to Lukas because of verses like Romans 8:28-29, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” These verses remind us that God is in control of everything, and He is using all things in order to conform His people into the image of His son, which is the greatest good for us. Whether it’s Lukas, his parents, His grandparents, his uncles and aunts, his nurses-whoever! God is using the evil of Lukas’s Leukemia for the good of His people and the glory of His name.
Maybe we can’t always see how God is bringing about a greater good from my nephew’s suffering, but we’ve seen that God used the greatest evil in history- the crucifixion of the perfect and innocent Son of God, Jesus Christ- in order to bring about the greatest good ever: the salvation of every person who calls on Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the universe. So if God could take the worst evil in history and bring about he greatest good, of course He can use the evil in Lukas’s life for a greater good.
I find comfort knowing that the sufferings of this present time are not even worth comparing with the future glory. I find peace knowing that I worship a good, powerful, and all-knowing God who has a plan for us all and who can heal my nephew and bring him to a saving faith. It’s through Jesus I have hope; on Christ the solid rock I stand, all other worldviews are sinking sand.