Atheism, the Death of a Child, and God

When of the most emotionally stirring conversations for me concerning the problem of evil occurs in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. The novel follows the life of the Karamazov brothers and their dead-beat father with discussions about God, morality, ethics, and a host of social issues wonderfully and intricately woven into the text along the way. The scoffing elder brother Ivan Karamazov, responding to the believing innocence of the younger brother Alyosha Karamazov, says:

It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and rayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and who could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it… It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.

Let that soak in a moment. Ivan, or Dostoevsky, definitely has a way with words. The problem of evil hits home when children are discussed. Yes, when an adult dies of cancer or in a car crash, it is a sad moment. But, maybe the adult lived a life well spent. Maybe he or she got to see numerous sunrises, smell the aroma of their spouse’s hair as they fluttered off into sleep, or tasted some of the best food on earth. Not so when a child dies young. There’s always a sense of travesty. This isn’t right. Where is justice? How can God let this happen? The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that “No one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.” Can they not Dr. Russell? What does atheism entail in these all too common moments of grief? Mr. Atheist, with all due respect, what do you offer to the parent? Be straight with them. Tell them the “truth” that you’ve discovered. As they hold their little girl or boy’s hand, tell them what your worldview entails. Tell them cancer is just the residual results of millions of years of pointless and random mutations. Tell them that the gnawing sense of injustice is nothing more than socio-cultural learned behavior from the higher primates as they’ve lived together in community for millions of meaningless years on this piece of sod. Tell them the love they had for that child was nothing more than the random banging around of atoms within their brain. Tell them that the tears they cried are purposeless because ultimately there is no purpose in the death of their pride and joy. Tell them the utterly futile nature of praying to someone who you think doesn’t exist. Tell them that there’s nothing more for the child but the decomposition process after you lay him or her into the tomb. Tell them Mr. Atheist that the comfort they feel as believing parents is nothing more than a delusion or hoax. Tell them that all the miracles, all the words written in red, all the countless billions changed by their “relationship” with their deity, and all the evidence compiled in book after book doesn’t account to much in your mind. Tell them Mr. Atheist how to go forward with the knowledge that this life is all there is. You better make it count…Can you give it to them straight my friend? Tell them that there is no basis for right and wrong. Go ahead and prove that by striking their tear-stained faces with the palm of your hand Mr. Atheist. Who cares right? As Dostoevsky remarked, “If God does not exist, all is permitted.” You think that’s absurd? C’mon now…you have no basis for calling anything absurd.

As Mr. Atheist quietly walks out of the room, let’s deal with the issue like adults. Dr. Russell and those of his brand will have nothing hope-creating or comfort-bringing to say to grieving parents. Without God’s existence, it truly is meaningless. But, the question still looms over our heads. Why does God allow such atrocities like the death of a child? We don’t have all the answers but the Bible does give us some to ponder. Jared Wilson offers ten biblical replies in his latest book Gospel Deeps. He says God allows suffering for the following incomplete but hopeful reasons:

  1. To remind us that the world is broken and groans for redemption [Rom. 8:20-23].
  2. To do justice in response to Adam’s (and our) sin.
  3. To remind us of the severity of the impact of Adam’s (and our) sin.
  4. To keep us dependent on God [Heb. 12:6-7].
  5. So that we will long more for heaven and less for the world.
  6. To make us more like Christ, the suffering servant [Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 1:5, 4:11].
  7. To awaken the lost to their need for God [Ps. 119:67, 71].
  8. To make the bliss of heaven more sweet [Rom. 8:18; 1 Pet. 4:13; Ps. 126:5; Isa. 61:3].
  9. So that Christ will get the glory in being our strength [John 9:3; 2 Cor. 4:7].
  10. And so that, thereby, others see that he is our treasure, and not ourselves [2 Cor. 4:8-9].

The most encouraging piece of Scripture one can offer is Romans 8:28-30. The apostle Paul writes that “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. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Those bring hope to the Christian during intense moments of suffering. Believers are assured that everything works together for good because the God who set his covenantal love upon them, predestined them to be like his Son, called them effectually to himself, and justified them will certainly glorify them. All the sufferings and afflictions of the present era are not an obstacle to their ultimate salvation but the means by which salvation will be accomplished. Trust God during these moments of darkness beloved.


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