The goodness of God is perhaps nowhere more in question than in situations of unexpected loss—especially when this loss is of your happy and healthy 6-month-old son. A year ago, October 7, 2017, the dark cloud of death appeared over my family and brought with it a deluge of grief and flash floods of confusion, pain, and frustration after my son Landry failed to wake up from a routine nap. In the aftermath that followed in those difficult first few weeks and months, the slowly receding waters of despair revealed a new reality for our family that remains something from which we are healing to this day. On several occasions, the murky deeps even drew out an ancient serpent who hoped to sink its venomous fangs into my weakness and inject the poison of doubt concerning what I have publicly professed as a maturing believer, pastor, and theologian—doubts of God in general and of his goodness in particular. And yet, my commitment to and assurance of a good God, in spite of this horrible calamity, remains, and, in fact, is more certain than ever before. How can this be?
When Goodness Doesn’t Register
It is well known that the Christian worldview argues that a good God offers hope that brings perseverance in seasons of tribulation to those who know and belong to him. One iteration of this principle is recorded in 1 Peter 1:6-7:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
This passage teaches that the good promised in the future is able to provide needed perseverance in present difficulties. However, there are those moments in which this particular implication of the promised goods offered by a benevolent God seems especially distant and even foreign. Being reminded of how good God is in providing future hope while in the throes of great suffering might be compared to a flood insurance agent knocking on your door, hoping to sell you a policy for the next major weather event while there is still standing water in your house.
Both of these situations share the promise of coming answers and aid and yet both do not yield immediate comfort and/or present satisfaction for one’s existential confusion. Put differently, there may be at least one situation (acute grief and loss) in which a straightforward moral argument for God or the future goods that he provides is not the most appropriate means of rescuing someone from doubt and disillusionment. It certainly wasn’t what contributed to my resolve to remain a Christian theist in my darkest hour.
Other Goods and Cumulative Apologetics
Interestingly, even the apostle Peter appears to have recognized this in his first epistle. Prior to promising perseverance in trials (supported by the future hope offered by a good God) he reminds his audience of other foundational truths that are apologetically useful and uniquely evidenced.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
In this lead up to the passage cited earlier, Peter appears to predicate any and all future hope for salvation and all of the good things that entails with the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This integral event happens to be one of the most thoroughly evidenced episodes in all of history. Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and company have devoted decades to demonstrating that not only is the resurrection of Jesus Christ possible, it is the most probable explanation for all the available historical data that is conceded by the widest variety of critical scholarship. This data includes but is not limited to the following: the fact of Jesus’ death, the presence of an empty tomb three days later, the radical transformation suffered by the disciples in general and James and Paul in particular, the spread of the resurrection story in the proximity of Jerusalem (exactly where the events were said to have transpired and where they could have easily been investigated), the explosion of the early church, the instigation of Sunday worship, etc.
The evidential case made for this important event not only helps the believer defend a central component of Christianity and, by proxy, a myriad of other connected theological teachings, it is not as prone to the kind of emotional scrutiny and skepticism that the concept of a good God is (that is, when articulated in isolation), especially in tragic situations. In other words, one can know/remember in a primarily intellectual way that there are good reasons to affirm belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead along with its theological implications even if/when their existential experience has them doubting God’s goodness. This appears to be Peter’s agenda in his encouragement. When one suffers tribulation that interrupts his conviction in God’s goodness because of a tidal wave of emotion, he can still remember on a more cognitive level that there are good reasons to affirm other fundamental elements in his system. This initial step then has the potential to lead, eventually, to the acceptance of God’s work and many attributes—including but not limited to his divine benevolence. This became especially clear to me when on what would have been my late son’s first birthday, we celebrated Easter Sunday. On that day my Christian convictions were reinforced not by what I felt, or even directly by any formal moral argument, but by a miraculous event that transpired some 2000 years ago and the many strong reasons to affirm its historicity. It was only after this primarily intellectual recollection was made that I was able, in time, to reacquaint myself with more distant affirmations.
One may wonder, especially in the miry depths of despair, how the alleged resurrection of some Nazarene two thousand years ago can provide hope for anyone. Even if he was raised, what is that to me? Whether raised or not, still here I am, drowning, gasping for air. While in the dark, questions come quickly, incessantly. One question comes, perhaps, more naturally than the others: “Oh Jesus of Nazareth, what is this hope to me? How will you right these wrongs? How will you make my family, my son, and me whole again?” In the dark of the deep, only the brightest light will reach the bottom. So, what does the reality of Jesus and his empty tomb offer those who weep?
In that dark place, after recalling Christ’s most wondrous resurrection (affirmed by compelling evidences), I was reminded of several of his claims. Chief among these was his claim to be “the light of the word” (Jn 8:12)--a phrase often heard, but not frequently understood. When Jesus said these words, he was at the Jewish Festival of Lights. Around the temple, bowls were filled with oil and the wicks were so large, they were made from old priestly garments. When lit, the entire temple was filled with the blazing light. Since Jerusalem sits perched on a hill with the temple at the top, one would have seen the lamps burning for miles around.
The light of the golden lamps represented at least two things for the Jews at the feast. First, it was a reminder of the Exodus and of God in the pillar of fire. As the pillar of fire, God would lead Israel to the promised land and he would be in their midst. The Jews also saw the fire and hoped for a new Exodus, where God once again free them from oppression and be with them. God will liberate his people. But the light also represented God himself. After all, the temple was meant to be God’s dwelling place. In fact, there are many occurrences in the Old Testament in which God is said to be light or like light. For example, Isaiah (60:20) tells us that in the day of the messiah, “Your sun will no longer set; your moon will not disappear; the LORD will be your permanent source of light; your time of sorrow will be over.”
It was during this ceremony that Jesus declared, “I am the light world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).
What this Nazarene offers, then, is Emmanuel, God with us. He offers peace, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). That is some solace, indeed. What Jesus offers is to make all wrongs right, even the death of a son. How this will be accomplished may be a mystery, but that is the promise. Here is the lighthouse whose penetrating beams reach through the depths of grief.
This short testimony reveals the necessity of a well-rounded, multi-valent apologetic system. A cumulative case for God and his work is essential, because if one is either dependent on or tethered to a single argument/style or argumentation, he runs the risk of being broken loose when the storm strikes, doubt overwhelms, and skepticism rises. To encourage the church and effectively communicate in compelling ways to the secularist, the Christian theist must be equipped with a variety of cases for God and employ them appropriately to reach people where they are emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and otherwise. In my personal odyssey, it was the strict evidential case for the resurrection that acted as a lifeline that both kept me connected to my theism and eventually reacquainted me with other elements therein. In this an many other cases, more immediately assessible arguments are able to draw those at risk of drowning in darkness to other truths that slowly, but most assuredly, betray the guiding light that leads the way back to glorious God from whom are all good things.
The Goodness of God
In providing multiple evidences and/or arguments for his existence that can be employed in a multiplicity of situations (from the highly emotional to the academic), God shows something about himself that appears far off when tragedy strikes—his goodness. Only a good God would provide proof of himself that is capable of both piercing through the flood waters of grief and being intelligibly apprehended by people who are struggling to believe that he is benevolent in those painful moments. One might say that by providing arguments in addition to the moral argument, God once again demonstrates how utterly good he really is, and of that I am most assured even after losing my son.