Two hours into the conversation, the real question emerged: “but what about the suffering of the innocent children”?
My friend and I were basking in the sunlight streaming into our favorite coffee shop, and he had been relating his recent spiritual journey. The atheism he had embraced some 8 years earlier was wearing thin. He was especially troubled by the thought of his own story, and his children’s story, not being connected to anything larger or more significant.
My friend is perhaps not quite ready to turn to Christ. He had read (as I had also) the new atheists. But their arguments were not what was holding him back. Rather it was this question: How can God allow the innocent children to suffer?
After a few years as a debate coach and a few decades as a pastor I could have given answers that would, at least in my mind I suppose, logically defended God. On my bookshelf is a tome of some 600 pages written by one of my philosophy professors on the problem of evil. He wrote it as his Ph.D. dissertation, and it reads like one. The problem of evil is looked at in its various forms, and each analyzed and answered from a logical, rational viewpoint.
But after listening to my friend enough to know if he wanted my opinion, I did not pull out the logical syllogism I sometimes teach my students, or summarize the tome on my bookshelf. Instead, I summarized a book of an entirely different sort. A book that has helped me in this area more than any other.
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
This is, of course, a work of fiction, published in Russia in 1879. The main characters of the story are the father, Fyodor Karamazov, and his four sons: Ivan, Dmitri, Alyosha and their half-brother Smerdyakov.
Each of the brothers has a quite distinct worldview and personality. Western-educated Ivan is a thoughtful and moral atheist. Dimitri would likely claim to be a Christian, but is dominated by passions and sensuality. Alyosha is a devote believer, who is marked in the story by a strong, Christlike love to others, especially the hurt and needy. And Smerdyakov is the closest thing in the novel to a villain: at once cunning and foolish, he seems to wear a perpetual sneer.
The plot of the story centers around the murder of the father, Fyodor Karamazov. Dimitri, violent of temper and a rival to the father for the affections of a woman, is the immediate suspect. Though the evidence against him is only circumstantial, he is ultimately convicted and sent away to a prison labor camp.
This is not a plot-centric novel. Its majesty comes from the psychological portraits of the brothers, and especially the interactions between Ivan and Alyosha.
The key chapter is titled Rebellion, and focuses on a dinner conversation between the two brothers. Ivan does most all the talking; one senses he is at last able to unload his thoughts on his younger brother. He relates his own spiritual journey, and how the one sticking point to believing in God (or, more precisely, to accepting the offer of the kingdom of God), is the suffering of children. He focuses on children alone, for, as he says, adults have “tasted the apple”, but young children are innocent, and thus the question of punishment is not relevant.
He confesses that he has become something of a collector of stories of suffering children; he clips and saves the newspaper articles. He relates a half-dozen of the worst stories to Alyosha, who is almost silent in pain as he hears them. Ivan concludes that even if the kingdom of heaven could somehow justify the suffering of one child as necessary for it to come into the world, he could never accept it. He would instead, “return the admittance ticket”.
Here, and in other chapters, Ivan Karamazov makes the most moving and passionate argument for rejecting Christianity that I have ever read. That, and the profound psychological analysis, is perhaps why Freud would call this book “the most magnificent novel ever written”. I would agree with the claim, but not, I suspect, the reason.
For despite Alyosha’s silence, there is in this novel a profound answer to Ivan. It is not in the words of Alyosha. It is Alyosha.
Alyosha loves. He even loves Ivan despite his great sadness and fear that Ivan’s philosophy will destroy his life, and even though Ivan affirms that without God, “everything is permitted”.
Alyosha loves. He continues to love, even those who abuse him and scorn him. He continues to seek peace and healing. He continues to do good to those who are in need, even when they, in their resentment, insult and despise him. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Despite not even attempting to argue with his atheist brother, despite not even having an answer, Alyosha goes on doing what he has been doing: loving others, and sharing their suffering, in Christian devotion.
Ivan, in the meanwhile, finds he walks a more bitter path. He learns, to his horror, that Smerdyakov, not Dimitri, is the murderer of their father. Worse, that Smerdyakov has done this influenced by Ivan’s philosophy. Smerdyakov has taken “everything is permitted” quite seriously. Or…more consistently.
Ideas have consequences. And Ivan finds that while he himself would never commit parricide, his ideas, taken up by men with lesser intellects and worse morals, lead to suffering and death. And here Dostoyevsky predicts 20th century Russia.
Alyosha and Ivan see the same reality, yet choose differently each how to interpret that. One brother, while not having the answer for suffering, lives a life that relieves suffering and spreads love. The other brother collects newspaper accounts of the suffering of innocent, yet does nothing to relieve such suffering. In fact his rejection of God leads only to more suffering and evil.
This is Dostoevsky’s “non-answer answer” to the problem of suffering. And this book, not the 600-page technical theodicy, is what has helped me, and what I recommended to my friend.
For evil is not an argument: It is a thing. And the answer to evil is not logic but the cross. Alysha is an heir and a symbol of the One who took evil and suffering upon Himself, out of love for others. And I live in the hope that the cross has laid the groundwork for that Day when evil is no more, and love is perfected.
Even so, come quickly.