If a two-year-old drops her ice-cream cone, that tragedy is the end of the world for her. Her mother knows that this is not the case. Can there be an understanding of life so staggering in its immensity that, in comparison to it, even gulags and the Holocaust seem like dropped ice-cream cones?
There are two kinds of Christians: those of experiential faith, and those of theoretical faith. Those in the former category encounter God directly, and know - not merely believe - that He exists, even if they encounter things that are troubling and contradict their preconceptions of God.
If you are like most Christians, you fall in the latter category; in other words, you are not a mystic. For you, God’s existence is a persuasive theory, not a personally-experienced truth. You may have been swayed by the arguments of philosophers like William Lane Craig, but you have yet to attain the direct insight of mystics like St. Seraphim of Sarov.
As a corollary, your faith has probably been shaken at least once in your life by the reality of human suffering. This is understandable; any theoretical Christian with a shred of compassion will acknowledge that such heartrending manifestations of suffering as the dying child can be a huge stumbling block to one’s faith. Indeed, I would prefer the atheist whose compassion for others drove him to disbelief to the theoretical Christian whose indifference to suffering explains why he has remained steadfast in his faith in spite of it.
From a strictly rational perspective, however, suffering cannot be taken to be a stand-alone reason to doubt God's existence. Atheists who view suffering as evidence that God is a myth, and that Christianity is therefore false, essentially argue in a circle. Christians believe in a post-mortem state marked by unending and indescribable bliss, far greater in measure than any suffering endured here on earth. They view earthly suffering from a heavenly, eternal perspective, whereas atheists view it from an earthly, temporal one. The atheists stand before a mountain and are awed at its height, while Christians see nothing but a speck from the higher vantage point of an airplane.
Thus, the particular form of the argument with which we are concerned – i.e., that Christianity is absurd - rests not only on the premise that people suffer, but also on the premise that the Christian belief in heaven – the blessings of which more than compensate for our earthly suffering - is absurd. In other words, the conclusion and the premise on which it rests are one and the same.
Of course, it is not that these atheists are ignorant of the Christian belief in heaven. Rather, they cannot quite bring themselves to accept this belief for the sake of argument, and there are at least three reasons why:
First, their emotions may have overcome their ability to think rationally. Although their reasoning is flawed, their flaw is one with which we can easily sympathize.
Second, they may simply suffer from a lack of imagination. In his 2001 book, Why Religion Matters, the late Huston Smith invited us to ponder the following analogy: “If a two-year-old drops her ice-cream cone, that tragedy is the end of the world for her. Her mother knows that this is not the case. Can there be an understanding of life so staggering in its immensity that, in comparison to it, even gulags and the Holocaust seem like dropped ice-cream cones?” The difficulty of imagining such a vantage point is no reason to doubt its existence.
The third reason is that we have grown more self-centered. I once dated a girl who became an atheist the day a car accident left her legs badly injured. How, she wondered, could a loving God allow this to happen to her? “Wait a second,” I replied, perhaps insensitively: “You mean to tell me that your faith had never been challenged by the knowledge of children dying from hunger and disease, but when misfortune - and a relatively mild form of it – befell you, you concluded that God must be a lie? Do you have any idea how narcissistic you sound?!”
In truth, though, it is difficult to blame her. We are all products of this culture of self-deification, in which we learn to ask “Why me?”, whereas the appropriate - if brutally honest - answer would be “Why not you?” It is partly on account of the current mindset that more of us perceive our suffering as an insurmountable obstacle to faith. Humanity has always suffered, but we are now inclined to fancy ourselves entitled to a life that is not - as it has always been, in the oft-quoted words of Thomas Hobbes - “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Dr. Azarvan is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia. His work has appeared in Pemptousia, Russia Insider, Truthout, Inside Higher Ed, and a number of other secular and religious publications. He has also edited a book on Orthodoxy titled, "Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience". He attends St. Mary of Egypt Russian Orthodox Church in Roswell, GA.