”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.

Meditations on Silence

“For twenty years I labored in the mission.” With emotionless voice Ferreira repeated the same words. “The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country.” “It is not that it does not take root,” cried Rodrigues in a loud voice, shaking his head. “It’s that the roots are torn up.” At the loud cry of the priest, Ferreira did not so much as raise his head. Eyes lowered he answered like a puppet without emotion: “This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

Over the Christmas break, I witnessed the most intense film that I’ve ever watched. That’s what Scorcese’s Silence was for me. Not content being sad or suspenseful it provoked thought through its sheer intense psychological torture. And it forced you kicking and screaming to live through its characters. Based on Shusaku Endo’s book Silence, it follows 2 Portuguese Jesuit priests’ search for their mentor Ferreira whom their order has lost contact with. Rumor has it that he has apostatized and is now living as a Japanese man. Through a grueling 2 hours, we come to learn of the villages who worship in secret, hoping for the return of the Jesuits and the agonizing deaths suffered by those who refuse to renounce their faith by committing fumi-e – stepping on a picture of Christ or the Virgin Mary. As a result of Japan’s purge of foreign influence all missionaries have also been expelled from Japan. Rodrigues and Garupe are the last 2 priests remaining.

That isn’t the horror of the story. After Garupe dies trying to save the Christian villagers condemned to drown at sea, Rodrigues comes face to face with his Ferreira to see that the rumor has been true. He has become Sawano Chuan, a Japanese man with a wife who now writes as a Japanese buddhist. How did the swamp of Japan finally defeated the missionary spirit of Christ? This is where Scorcese blows the flame of his paradox. Instead of threatening Japanese converts by death, the roots were ripped out by killing and torturing Japanese believers if Jesuit priests refused to renounce the faith themselves.

For the 2 men, Rodrigues and Ferreira, the straw that finally broke their backs was anazuri. The Japanese are suspended upside down in a pit and left to slowly bleed out over the course of days, sometimes weeks. The pit is covered so their heads are enclosed. It can be filled with blood and their excrement. It is like the vicarious suffering of Christ was hit with an Uno reverse card. Just as humanity suffered for Adam’s sin, so the Japanese Catholics die for the confession of the priests’ own faith. Throughout the movie, you’re prompted to ask “where is God in the midst of such oppressive silence?”

The answer is found when Rodrigues sees a vision of Christ who assures him of his presence despite his apparent silence and permits him to step on image of him in order to ease the suffering of others. After all, that is what he came for. Rodrigues lives out his days as a Japanese man with a wife and child and helps the Tokugawa government identify any Christian contraband coming into the Christian. Although he appears to have forsaken his Christian beliefs, the last scene of the movie is a shot from within his cremation barrel where he can be seen holding a crucifix hidden within a paper parcel.

In Christianity, martyrdom for your beliefs is often honored as a heroic expression of faith. But what if others are martyred because of your beliefs? That’s the question that Scorcese wrestles with so well. The movie seems to answer that God works in the silence even of his followers. And that it’s okay to deny him to ease the suffering of others. Like a parent lying to protect their child, we want to be able to let this little lie slide and confess Jesus in our hearts though our mouths may tremble shut. The emotional force of suffering is so great that it would seem a greater evil than even apostasy and the renouncing of one’s faith – essentially your beliefs.

The reason behind the emotional force of the movie is because of the argument by the daimyo Inoue. Christianity is not welcome in Japan. It fits worse than an old shoe with no soles. No fruit can grow out of such a swamp. Such language reminded me of the way manipulative people speak, like a father blaming his child for the way he beat his mother. The responsibility of killing Japanese Christians is shifted by Inoue to the missionaries themselves. Yet no amount of forced decisions can hide that anymore than a tortured testimony can be upheld in a court of law. Their own people could have stopped it at any time. We feel its guilt though, because it appears as though the priests could’ve done something to stop it.

But what’s worse than any physical and temporary suffering? Denying that you don’t know nor believe nor love Christ…That’s the pain Peter felt as the rooster crowed. That’s what the Father felt when he condemned Jesus on behalf of humanity, when he bore the weight of the world’s sin and was abandoned and disowned so that we could be reconciled to him. For God to ask that of us would be for us to do something’s he already done – condemn his Son on the behalf of others. But for us to renounce him is to condemn him as a liar in whom no salvation can be found. We would be saying that Jesus is not worthy of full allegiance nor of more honor than even kings.

It helps if we imagine Christ in the same position – would he deny God his Father if it meant being able to save some of his followers from persecution? While it can be tempting in this cultural age to believe that what we believe and think is of little importance, remember that to Jesus the greatest sin was the blasphemy of God’s Spirit – to call God and his work evil and denounce Christ before men. Jesus alone is the savior of all men: both those bleeding to death upside down and those watching them. To deny that compromises your soul though it might save the momentary suffering of others.

What is hardest is to trust God that even in the face of such an impossible decision his purposes are good and that he is not and will not be silent as the blood of those who die for his sake cry out against their true oppressors and not those they try to blame, manipulating Christian compassion to cover their inhumane apathy. I write all this not because I believe I would be able do what I think is right in such a situation. Because I know that I wouldn’t. The swamp of Japan has defeated the spirit of many. And I wouldn’t be the last. Even if I survived such an ordeal I would be a permanently broken man. So I hope I never have to face such a situation. And if I do I hope that God will sustain me on such a day. All in all, it would’ve been a great film if it wasn’t so dragged out and its attempt at redemption wasn’t just a whimper. But real life is often like that. So watch it. If you dare.

Why Hell Must Exist

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Matt 5:21-23

When was the last time you thought about hell? If you’re like me it’s probably been awhile. That’s not a surprise because sometime around the latter half of the 20th century, hell dropped out of our culture’s vocabulary. I’m not sure how it happened or exactly when, but I do remember hell being a common phrase as a kid and then it suddenly just vanished. It wasn’t that it was there one day and then gone the next; it was as if adults had ever heard of such a concept. Instead of a common belief around which morality and life was oriented, it became a dirty word associated with fringe groups. Like those Westboro Baptist guys. It wasn’t a teaching you or your church wanted to be known for. Sure people nowadays may believe in a hell, but this concept is vague and it isn’t quite sure who makes it or who doesn’t. What is certain is that you don’t and no one you’re related to don’t. Not to mention most people. Really, the only people who would deserve hell would probably be Hitler…and that’s about it.

The Christian View of Hell

This places modern Christians in an awkward position since they have always believed in a literal heaven and hell from the time of the apostles. More than that, Christians believe that anyone who doesn’t repent and turn to a man named Jesus will go to hell, separated from any good relationship with God and in the full presence of his wrath. In tolerant times like ours, the Christian belief of heaven and hell is like jumping into a frozen pool, a shock to our system of values. This makes it almost incomprehensible and because of that it’s easy for such views to be socially rejected because of its perceived ‘unfairness’.

Can God really condemn people for a lack of belief? What about the ‘good atheist’? What about Gandhi? More importantly what about the everyday people we know and love like grandma who isn’t a Christian but is one of the most kind hearted people you’ll ever meet? If it’s an outrage when a good man gets the same sentence as a wicked one, how much more when God does so with humans. But if you pause to reflect on the nature of justice, you realize that for a perfect God to be just, hell must necessarily exist. More than that, hell must include people just like you and me.

Evil Isn’t Out There, It’s In Here

While technology like social media has readily opened up the world to us in the 21st century, being more connected to other human beings also means being more open to seeing the injustice and evil that exists in this world. When we see a news report of a school shooting, or a woman who had acid thrown on her face for leaving Islam, or that Syria has attacked its own citizens with chlorine gas, our heart cries out for justice.

But if we want the world to be a better place, wanting injustice to be remedied is only the first step. The second one is to realize that all of the evil we see in others is the same that’s present in ourselves. The scariest thing about the Holocaust, were that its soldiers, its prison guards, and its secret services were just everyday German citizens. They weren’t born monsters, they were human and this was demonstrated in the shock of one Jewish man who attended his perpetrator’s trial. As he looked into his eyes, he saw his humanity and he realized that the two were the same.

We are each capable of infinite evil. Like cancerous cells, they lie dormant within us, awaiting their opportunity to entice our souls. So if we want God to eliminate evil and rectify injustice, we must accept that a perfect God cannot tolerate the least bit of evil in the universe. He must deal with all of it and not just some out there in others. And that includes even the judgment of people like you and me who probably may not ever commit a major crime in our lives, but nonetheless harbor the very same dark desires that when fed, lead to widespread suffering.

Why Only Those Who Believe In Jesus Escape Hell

The Christian doesn’t believe that people go to hell because of their lack of belief in Jesus anymore than we believe that lifelines cause the death of people who drown. No, people drown because they asphyxiate underwater but the lifeline was the only thing that could’ve saved them. So too with Jesus. In any court case, justice demands payment. But in the courts of God, the cost of a crime against an eternally perfect being is more than any man can bear. Unless a perfect substitute exists to bear the guilt of the evil that lies within us, all we’re left with is despair – despair that despite our best efforts to scrub off the evil around us, we can never touch the evil within us and despair because we ultimately know that it will never measure up under the eyes of God. But this is the beauty of Jesus:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Is. 53:5

Is the Existence of God and Evil Logically Contradictory?

Epicurus ponders a question as old as time itself.

Evil Shows That There Is No God: God and Evil Reconciled

The Traditional Argument

J.L. Mackie was an Australian philosopher of the 20th Century, who most famously wrote of the logical contradiction between the existence of God and evil, which has now become one of the de facto arguments against Christianity and theism in general. In my own time in university, I’ve heard many a student say, “how can a loving, all powerful, all knowing God possibly allow so much evil to exist?” Another variation is for the student to replace the word “evil” with “suffering”. Though I’ve edited this article, much of it is based on an essay, which I wrote during my time in a Presbyterian seminary so forgive any language that may be hard to understand. Not all of the arguments here are mine, but footnotes have been deleted due to formatting issues. If you would like to have a look at them, please contact me for the full pdf. This article was written to address the so-called logical contradiction of evil and God, not the necessarily existential or emotional aspect of one’s struggle with this belief, which would necessitate a whole other article by itself. Without further ado, Mackie in Evil shows that there is no God argues that traditional theistic beliefs are ultimately irrational.

The question is a philosophical rather than existential struggle to belief by trying to find a logical contradiction in the existence of God and evil. Mackie attempts this by means of a valid deductive argument with true premises for God’s non-existence. If valid, the statement “God and evil exists” is contradictory and hence false. Mackie’s argument is this:

1. God is omnipotent

2. God is wholly good

3. Evil exists

4. Good is opposed to evil by eliminating it as far as it can

5. There is no limit to what omnipotent beings can do

6. A good omnipotent being eliminates all evil

7. Evil exists, therefore a good omnipotent God does not

In Mackie’s view, traditional theism affirms the existence of God and evil, and therefore what is contradictory. To make a contradictory, false statement “true”, theism must deny the logicality of its affirmation. Mackie demonstrates that the only alternative solution is to deny at least one of the premises or modify it while undermining theism’s core position. Four examples of solutions that implicitly deny these premises are that good cannot exist without evil, evil is a necessary means to good, the universe is better with some evil than without, and evil is due to free will. Either way, belief in God is irrational. If rational, then either God or evil cannot exist.

Mackie’s Philosophical Contribution by this Argument

In retrospect, Mackie’s deduction is logically valid. If the premises are true, he concludes a significant philosophical question that has been debated for millenniums. After all, thousands of years before, the Greek philosopher Epicurus once said the exact same, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?” Moreover, it is proof that the traditional theistic God does not exist. If we assert he does despite this proof, then our theistic belief is irrational and ultimately cannot be known to be true or false. Theism appears to be in a bind and this argument will be examined later on.

Does Free Will Necessitate that Evil Exist?

Mackie also gives a sound refutation of evil as necessary for free will and undermines the concept of libertarian freedom. First, he questions why freedom is a “good” and more valuable than any other good that it necessitates co-existence with evil. If a wrong act is done freely, does it then become good? Secondly, it is evident that humans sometimes choose good over evil freely, whether it is due to circumstance or desire. If men can freely choose good sometimes, why can God not make us choose good every time? Therefore, free will is reduced to randomness so that God cannot be held responsible for the “sometimes wrong”.

Ganssle’s libertarian argument that it is possible for evil to exist so that free will can have the possibility of actualizing different realities subtly undermines an omnipotent God. If God is not sovereign over everything including the intrinsic world, then he is not sovereign at all. This is exacerbated when understanding that Christian theism constitutes an omniscient God because foreseeing an event that may lead to evil, Mackie’s premises necessitates that God omnipotently act to prevent it in his foreknowledge.

Lastly, in order to know if we have free will, we must be able to know that it is in our power to choose otherwise. Yet we cannot know all that affects our desires both internally and externally so that we can do so freely. We would have to know every cause, factor and relationship of the world and ourselves to determine if our next decision was free. Moreover, would we really know if other alternative realities would actualize depending on our choice? They remain a speculative possibility and possibilities are merely a synonym for uncertainty. To know if we have free will, we would have to be omniscient. We are clearly not, and so must resort to a better definition of free will in this traditional libertarian defense of theism.

A Christian Response to Mackie

Since evil self-evidentially exists, Mackie’s argument on appearance draws logical proof for God’s non-existence and furthermore the irrationality of objecting belief. On closer examination, I hope to show that Mackie’s argument is intrinsically flawed from its definitions and premises while his conclusion itself assumes and proves the Christian God’s existence. Consequently, the belief that God and evil cannot co-exist is not just irrational but false, and the belief that God and evil does is not merely rational but true.

I will start with the premises. Premise 3) is true but unjustified from an atheistic position. First, Mackie does not provide a definition of his most important problem, which he uses to conclude his argument. What is evil? What evil does he have in mind that cannot co-exist with God? The fact that he has not defined it but is assumed in what he says it is, reveals that it is a subjective “evil” he is asserting when saying “it” cannot exist with God. This is merely reduced to a personal preference that God’s existence is incompatible with. He has yet to justify its universality or nature, and he cannot, because to justify it one must be omniscient (to know all that is good and evil) and omnipotent (to be able to determine good from evil universally instead of being subject to it), which no human is. Yet Mackie assumes that evil exists. He does so by saying that a theist cannot deny it but the burden of proof lies on him to show it does as an atheist. Christian theism explains evil as an ethical rebellion with its beginning in the world as a result of the Fall. Raising the question of evil assumes that God exists because a universal, objective standard must be used which can only be determined by an omnipotent and omniscient being, else subjectivism ensues.

Moreover, new exhibitions of what humans universally know as evil is continually found each day in newspapers. The definition of evil is always changing and debated by philosophers. We are unable to question God’s compatibility with evil by its mere presence because we do not know evil exhaustively and so cannot define it. Without defining evil, we are unable even to know good and evil properly. The answer lies only in a Christian theistic idea of evil that is defined by God. When Mackie concludes that God and evil cannot exist he can only do so if he affirms that they do. Such a statement becomes rationally irrational.

In the conclusion, Mackie is right when saying that God cannot exist with evil as a deductive result from his premises, because this god is the god of his subjective ideal based on his premises and not the God of Christianity. In fact, the Christian theistic belief is assumed in order for him to prove that his conceptual god does not. How? There are two main premises that Christian theism disagrees with here, without undermining its core “theistic” position: 4) and 5).

First, 4) can be changed to – a good being eliminates evil as far as it can unless it has good reasons for not doing so. However, I am merely pointing out that Mackie’s deduction is false from Christian theistic premises and not saying this directlyproves God’s existence. Rather it helps to affirm it. This is because the debate would be shifted to what constituted “good reasons” depending on whether it was aligned with Mackie’s standard of evil (which is subjective) or my standard. A parent may sometimes allow a child to suffer evil for his own good, but we are precisely like the child. We cannot see it as a good. The distinction is not up to us. Secondly, Christian theism can modify 5) to be – there are no logical limits to what an omnipotent being can do. It is impossible for God to perform impossibility. Mackie actually assumes this Christian presupposition underlying his idea of omnipotence because if there were no illogical limits to what an omnipotent God could do, then it is no contradiction for God to coexist with evil because he could allow contradictions to occur. It is his burden to prove that God cannot do what is illogical and he cannot without assuming the Christian view of a logical God.

The Underlying Issue of Such a Question

The logical question is actually revealed to be one of psychological resistance because God’s choice to allow evil must be approved by our idea of what a “good, omnipotent being” must do or be for him to exist; which is by having no evil. Either God is subject to our moral judgment or else our logic. Therefore, we have changed the premises while seemingly undermining theistic belief. The problem is that it is not Christian theism. Rather it is Mackie’s conception of God.

Ultimately, the question of whether God and evil can coexist is not ours to ask. Why is it that a good being eliminates evil as far as it can or that it does unless it has good reasons for doing so? What allows us this definition to what a good being can or cannot do to be good besides our self? We cannot determine whether God and evil can coexist unless we first understand what a good being does. Christian theism answers this. God is good. It is his nature. Hence all that he does is good regardless of whether we call it evil. He is not a good being because he is subservient to some higher law. Rather, the law was created for his creation so if God were to “steal”, he would not be doing wrong because all that is created is his. God defines good and evil, by being the natural embodiment of good so that no matter what he does is determinatively good. There is no law higher than himself. There is no claim for God’s responsibility either because there is no superior being to which he can be held accountable; he transcends both.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mackie must assume Christian theism to deny his wrong and illogical concept of God by the use of his unjustified definitions. Ultimately, such a belief against God and evil’s co-existence becomes irrational and false. Without God to define omnipotence, good, and evil, we have no foundation but our subjective selves to deny his existence. We cannot use our notions of reason or morality to prove or deny God’s existence because we are unable to interpret morality rightly by our standards or justify reason’s validity. We must use him to justify them. God and evil does exist, and exists rationally. However this relationship does not depend on our rationality because it is flawed, but rather our very nature and question presupposes that he does. Therefore, in order to know how and know clearly, we need direct revelation from God himself because in him, we live, move, and have our being.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think down in the comments!