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    Why Does God Allow the Innocent to Suffer?

    Not all of life’s questions can be answered rationally. Dostoyevsky points to another way.

    By Peter Wehner

    November 3, 2023
    • Mel Fros

      “Why Does God Allow the Innocent to Suffer?” The question is so utterly off the mark that I can only respond by asking: Why do humans evade responsibility for the suffering they themselves cause? Good and evil are sides of the same coin, so to speak. We would never know what “good” is in the absence of its counterpart, evil. If you believe, as I do, that the light of creative mystery, the ability to do good, resides within every human heart, the question is not why God allows innocents to suffer, but why humans commit evil actions that cause innocents to suffer.

    • John Wilson Jr

      I think this article captures an important point, one that is found in other books by Dostoevsky. Peace and happiness are not what we imagine them to be when we go looking for them. A friend of mine was reading Crime and Punishment a few years ago. She was in the middle and was finding it a very moving but a very sad book. I told her that much of the book was sad, but that it ended happily. I do not think many think the ending of Crime and Punishment a happy one; my friend did not. But I think it is happy. Albert Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” tells us, after pointing out that Sisyphus’s life is a cycle of anguish, forlornness, and despair, that we must imagine Sisyphus happy. If this is so, how much more happy must Raskolnikov be. He is a man who has committed a heinous crime. He is a man who appears through most of the novel to be devoid of conscience. He evokes for me in his intensity the line from Yeats “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” He finds, though, at the end of the novel, redemption and forgiveness. He finds peace with himself, his world, and his God. He accepts responsibility for his actions and he is sent to Siberia, one of the harshest, most forlorn locations on the planet. Yet he goes into this harsh physical environment at peace with himself and no longer fighting the much harsher and more relentless demons of his mind and spirit, of his inner self. In addition, he goes into this exile with the woman he loves. Granted, just as Cinderella, though we are told she lived happily ever after with her prince, must have had moments of conflict with her beloved in the process of that happily ever after. No doubt Raskolnikov and Sonya had their moments of tension as well, but there is no reason to believe they did not live happily every after. Also, for all its civilized refinements and comforts, St. Petersburg has its own impediments to happiness. The issue of happiness is an important one in the novel. Does it rest in our ambitions, our self-image or does it live somewhere else? Does happiness depend on external circumstance or does it come from within us? There are other issues raised in the book, of course, but I think for our time, the idea of where happiness is found and what it proceeds from is an important question. It is one of the questions humans hope to find answered in the books that they read. Buyan is a mythical place, a kind of paradise in Russian folklore. It is a place of fairy tales. Neither Siberia nor St. Petersburg are such a place, but on the other hand, perhaps, Buyan and the other earthly paradises of myth, folklore, and story are more of an inner than an outer reality and to a certain extent stories, like the ones Dostoevsky tells, help us to find that inner reality. Perhaps I am the only person that reads Crime and Punishment this way. What we see in the novel of Raskolnikov’s life in Serbia is harsh and difficult. I do not know that happiness is what most readers would find in it. But the demons that pursued him in St. Petersburg seem to have left him and I imagine him happy and at peace with himself and his God. The happily ever after Dostoevsky gives us is not the one the world, and at times the church, offers us.

    • Larry Smith

      Thank you for this, Peter. I will read “The Brothers” again. Only one thing to add: Given our belief that God is good and just, yet observing pervasive suffering and evil, eternal life must exist. Our gracious Father needs it to right all the wrongs.

    • Henry Lewis

      I very much enjoyed this article. It is worth retaining to be read again and again. We have only our poured out lives to give. We have only our love. It is a broken world but we share the road with the ultimate sufferer Jesus. And our response to the madness is a kiss, and it is enough. Thank you for the article.

    From the start of my journey as a Christian I realized faith would not come easily to me. Even then, in my late teens, I was dogged by questions ranging from the narrow – just how reliable are the manuscript copies of Scripture – to the cosmic – how does a good God allow suffering in the world? Unanswered questions filled page after page of my dad’s work stationery as I attempted to reconcile my faith in God with the world I saw around me.  

    As the years passed my faith came to define my life: nowadays, it’s impossible to understand me without taking it into account. But however anchored in Christianity I became, the questions never stopped coming. As an active member of different churches, I developed deep bonds of friendship and fellowship with other Christians. Those relationships have enriched my life.

    Yet within the communities in which I worshipped, many Christians had a tendency to talk as if the answers they offered to life’s hard questions were airtight, presuming there was a rational, logical and morally compelling response to every doubt and every query. Listening to Christian apologists handle objections on call-in shows, I couldn’t help but feel they spoke with far more assurance than their responses warranted. The same was true of some of books I read, conversations I had, and classes I attended over the decades. Too often there seemed to be no room for uncertainty or ambiguity, for shades of gray.

    two poor children sitting on steps

    Franz von Felbinger, Poor Children, 1906

    “Many Christians are convinced we see the world more transparently than the Scriptures themselves warrant,” the theologian Mark Labberton once told me. “Our faith should be humbly courageous and confident, but it should not spontaneously and arrogantly multiply. When this happens, often in an effort to exert power or to deny mystery, it can leave us and those we may lead searching for certainty beyond what God has provided.”

    It seemed impossible to me that the problem of theodicy – why an all-powerful God allows the existence of evil – could be answered in a neat and tidy way. And I was hardly alone.

    Earlier this year I listened to several  interviews where Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, discusses Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a famous Russian novelist and devout Christian who had a profound impact on Williams’s own theology. Williams has a deep knowledge of Russian literature and philosophy; in 2008 he put that knowledge to work in an acclaimed book, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.

    Talking about The Brothers Karamazov, widely regarded as Dostoyevsky’s greatest novel, Williams said it raised questions that “should go on worrying you for the rest of your life if you’re a Christian.” This intrigued me. Dostoyevsky, I discovered, believed that, as a Christian, he could prosecute the case against God better than an atheist ever could. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky lays out a searing indictment of the Christian God. And then he switches sides, and makes the case for the defense. Reading through three chapters of The Brothers Karamazov earlier this year with some of my friends – “Rebellion,” “The Grand Inquisitor,” and “The Russian Monk,” which Dostoyevsky called the “culminating point” of the novel – I discovered an approach to doubt radically at odds with the apologetics I had been familiar with. Dostoyevsky doesn’t answer the hard questions with neat and tidy solutions. He answers them with a kiss.

    In “The Rebellion,” Ivan – brilliant, intellectual, and conflicted; an atheist and a humanist – presses his younger brother Alyosha to reconcile how a good God could allow unjust human suffering. Ivan points to horrors perpetrated against children, graphic stories of cruelty Dostoyevsky took from contemporary newspaper reports. Reason cannot explain why the innocent suffer, in Ivan’s eyes. “Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and sinned,” Ivan says, “But you see he didn’t grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old.”

    Either God does not exist or, if he does, God is not all-powerful or, if he is, God is not good or just. Ivan’s fierce line of attack on the Almighty doesn’t convince Alyosha, who embodies an innocent and pure Christian faith, but it does shake him. Alyosha reminds Ivan of the Christ’s sacrifice – “You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’”

    “Ah! the One without sin and His blood!,” Ivan responds. “No, I have not forgotten Him; on the contrary I’ve been wondering all the time how it was you did not bring Him in the foreground.” He begins to recount a prose-poem of his own devising, which answers Aloysha’s objections. It’s the story, he says, of “The Grand Inquisitor.”

    “The Grand Inquisitor” is among the best-known passages in modern literature: the “story within a story” is perhaps the most recognized section of Dostoyevsky’s novel itself. It begins with Jesus’ return to earth in the sixteenth century, in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when “every day to the glory of God, ‘in the splendid auto da fe … wicked heretics were burnt.’” Drawing attention to himself by healing the sick, Jesus is soon arrested on the order of an elderly cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in the Savior’s darkened prison cell to inform him that the Church was undoing the damage done by Jesus sixteen centuries before.

    In the Grand Inquisitor’s view, when Jesus rejected the three temptations Satan placed before him in the desert, he made a terrible mistake. Rejecting worldly power placed an intolerable burden of freedom on human beings. Free will is unsuited to corrupt human nature: it dooms people to endless insecurity and unhappiness. The Grand Inquisitor says that he must burn Jesus at the stake in order that “man will not have to be plagued with that horrible burden of inner freedom.” The mission of the Church is to correct the tragic error of Jesus by having people submit to its authority, which has “vanquished freedom and has done so to make men happy.” Despite appearances, the Grand Inquisitor’s motives are humanistic; he wants what will minimize suffering and bring the most happiness to the most people. That means getting rid of freedom to choose otherwise, which means getting rid of Jesus, who is not humanity’s Savior, the cardinal says, but their enemy. The Grand Inquisitor has “joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work.”

    Dostoyevsky doesn’t answer the hard questions with neat and tidy solutions. He answers them with a kiss.

    Through it all, Jesus is silent. At the end of the chapter the Grand Inquisitor “saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for Him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless, aged lips. That was all his answer.” The old man shuddered, his lips moved, and he let Jesus escape into the dark alleys out of town. When Alyosha asked about the old man, Ivan told him, “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his ideas.”

    After telling his story, Ivan says to his younger brother, “there is no place for me even in your heart.” He asks if Alyosha will renounce him. Alyosha gets up, goes to his older brother and softly kisses him on the lips. “‘That’s plagiarism,’ cried Ivan, delighted. ‘You stole that from my poem. Thank you though. Get up, Alyosha, it’s time we were going, both of us.’”

    Book VI, “The Russian Monk,” centers on Father Zosima, a revered elder at the monastery, spiritual mentor to Alyosha, a man of inner peace, humility, and deep faith. It’s a book of reminiscences, with Zosima recounting stories of his brother Markel, a critic of faith who became a devout believer before he died at seventeen. Zosima remembers how as a youth, sent to a military cadet school, he became “a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature.” While there, filled with “sudden, irrepressible fury,” he challenges the husband of a woman he once wanted to marry to a duel. But the morning of the duel Zosima wakes up a different man, feeling shame and remorse, including for a beating he had given a servant the night before. Recalling his brother’s counsel to love all things, Zosima embraces the notion that everyone is made in the image of God. At the duel Zosima allows the woman’s husband to take the first shot. When it misses, Zosima throws away his weapon and begs for forgiveness. He then resigns his commission and joins the monastery.

    We learn, too, about a mysterious visitor named Mikhail. He’s well-respected in the community, rich and charitable, with a “reputation for benevolence.” He’s also a person Zosima senses had “some strange secret in his soul.” Zosima soon finds out what that secret is. Mikhail confides to the monk that fourteen years earlier he had murdered a woman in a crime of passion. Ever since then he had been tormented by guilt – “bitterly and ominously haunted by the blood of his murdered victim, by the young life he destroyed, by the blood that cried out for vengeance.” Zosima encourages him to confess to the crime. “I know it will be heaven for me, heaven, the moment I confess,” Mikhail says. “Fourteen years I’ve been in hell. I want to suffer. I will take my punishment and begin to live.” He adds: “God is not in strength but in truth.”

    Despite wavering initially, Mikhail eventually confesses to the townspeople, but nobody believes the confession of a man who has led such an exemplary life; they instead tell themselves that Mikhail was temporarily deranged. As he is close to death Mikhail says, “There was heaven in my heart from the moment I had done what I had to do…. I have done my duty.” A week before his death, Mikhail tells Zosima that, prior to his confession, he had come to visit Zosima with the intent to kill him. But “the Lord vanquished the devil in my heart.”

    Zosima’s narrative ends with a section on his “conversations and exhortations,” in which Dostoyevsky “develops some of his most cherished ideas,” in the words of Joseph Frank, the novelist’s award-winning biographer. Among Zosima’s exhortations is a paean to the Russian peasantry, urging people to “pray to God for gladness” and insisting that it is necessary “to love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of the Divine love and is the highest love on earth.” Above everything, Zosima warns, we must shun “a desire for vengeance on the evildoer.” He speaks of the power of “unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything.” At the end of Book VI, Zosima dies. The old monk bows down, his face to the ground, his arms stretched out “as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying (as he himself taught), quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.”

    “The main question, which … has tormented me consciously or unconsciously throughout my entire life – the existence of God,” Dostoyevsky told his friend, the poet A. N. Maikov, in an 1870 letter. Near the end of his life the novelist reflected that “my hosanna has passed through a great crucible of doubt.” This “great crucible of doubt” equipped Dostoyevsky to write The Brothers Karamazov. It included the intense grief Dostoyevsky felt over the death of his three-year-old son Alyosha, who died of epilepsy – a condition he inherited from his father.

    Dostoyevsky’s fiction is famous across the world for literary brilliance and depth, extraordinary psychological insights, and unforgettable, multi-dimensional characters. Less commented upon but just as pervasive is his sensitivity to the struggles of faith – in the words of Rowan Williams, “he quite deliberately sets out to show that being a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t have to close your eyes to the horrors and the outrages of the world.” When Dostoyevsky gave voice to the case against God, he didn’t hold back. He understood Ivan’s arguments against a loving deity as not only powerful but intellectually irrefutable. He did not, however, consider them unanswerable.  

    “As an answer to all this negative side, I am offering this sixth book, ‘A Russian Monk,’” Dostoyevsky wrote in a letter. “And I tremble for it in this sense: will it be a sufficient answer? All the more so because the answer here is not a direct one, it is not a point-by-point response to any previously expressed positions (in The Grand Inquisitor or earlier) but only an oblique response … so to speak, in an artistic picture.”

    Dostoyevsky’s response to Ivan’s attack against God isn’t an argument; it’s a kiss.

    Alyosha – and Jesus – can’t rationally refute Ivan, give him a neat and tidy answer to the problems of suffering. They love him instead. The philosopher Charles Guignon said of Dostoyevsky:

    He shows the inadequacy of Ivan’s stance by displaying its destructive existential implications in the actions and interactions of his characters throughout the novel as a whole. In Dostoyevsky’s view, the only way to answer philosophical and theological doubts is by drawing on and making manifest the deep understanding of life embodied in our active lives…. The full refutation of Ivan’s stance only emerges in the unfolding story of his life and the lives of those who refuse to accept his worldview.

    For Ivan, “everything is lawful” once God has been lost. For Zosima, faith in God leads to active, sacrificial love, to shouldering one another’s burdens. It is the compassion and beauty of the lives of believers that is the only real response to the case made by Ivan and his Grand Inquisitor.

    “Through Zosima Dostoyevsky was trying to present an alternative attitude toward life and toward the problem of human suffering,” Joseph Frank argues: “an attitude of serene acceptance of human destiny deriving from a conviction in the all-forgiving mercy of a loving God.” The crucifixion didn’t put an end to suffering; what it meant is that God entered into suffering. He is a God of wounds.

    “No one escapes this life unmarked by suffering. We are broken people who live on a broken planet, and grief is part of the price we pay,” the author Philip Yancey has written. Last year I asked Philip, a follower of Jesus, why he thought God allows suffering, especially for the young and the innocent. He told me, “I don’t know why God allows for suffering. All I know is that God is on the side of the sufferer.”

    I don’t believe there’s a satisfactory answer to the questions posed by Ivan, and Dostoyevsky, to his credit, doesn’t try to provide one. The problem of evil, for him, has no cut-and-dry solution. The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t give us a solution to suffering but a different way to look at it, and a way of life we can choose to take in response: active, incarnational love. A kiss is all we have for now. But a kiss is enough for now.

    Contributed By PeterWehner Peter Wehner

    Peter Wehner is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, a contributing writer for the Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum.

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