Guest Post: Suffering and the Grace of God

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Secuencia de AND by Pablo Gonzalez. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most weeks in my work as an immunologist, I am faced with the reality of our evolutionary origins. Someone will give a talk, describing the function of this or that receptor in humans and – in passing – will mention that the same receptor is seen in bacteria. Or (hoorah!) we find that an antibody, created to identify a protein in rats, nicely targets the same protein in human cells. Or an online search to identify a human DNA sequence ends up with a piece of armadillo DNA as the closest match (yes that did happen!)

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Tree of life By Ivica Letunic: Iletunic. Retraced by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal: LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But as a Christian, I am troubled by Darwinian evolution. What does it say of the character of God? On the face of it, God chose to make humans by a process which requires genetic mutation. Most of the time, mutations have no effect at all. When they do affect the creature carrying them, they can make them more fit for their environment – which is what drives evolution forwards – but more often they cause early death, pain, disability or disease.

I used to think of illness as the product of a fallen world, but now I cannot. Firstly, I cannot see any biological reality to the Fall. Secondly, I have to accept that suffering is a necessary part of our creation. It seems God requires suffering for our creation. God has mandated our suffering. And what sort of God is that?

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Lab technician in the Immunology department by Sanofi Pasteur. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I am also a doctor, and in fact I am writing this in between patients in an outpatient clinic. Every week, I see people with serious disability from neurological diseases. Some of these diseases arise because of genetic mutations interacting badly with our environment. The same process that made me able to flourish as a healthy human, “wonderfully made”, means the person in front of me experiences progressive contraction of their possibilities, capacities and hopes. Their health has, innocently and unwittingly, been sacrificed for mine. Many past humans have had limited lives, and animals before them, and simpler organisms before them, so that I might live life to the full. There is a terrible danger of feeling these blighted lives are instrumental for me; and that surely is not right.

I don’t often talk to other Christians about this, because in the past these views have caused hurt, confusion, or worse. I wish these thoughts would not nag away at me. But then the next experiment comes along, and there it is: the antibody we are using to identify a human target has just picked up something that the databases say belongs to a mouse. And a little later, I am seeing someone whose life is limited by a genetic mutation.

What helps me is reminding myself that we are all disabled. We are all, more or less, constrained and limited. Our myopic perspective is that some humans are gloriously able whilst others are terribly disabled, and we are full of a sense of unfairness. But I suspect that to God, all our capabilities are childishly tiny and His sense of fairness is more about his great and underserved gift of grace to us, rather than the differences between us. Perhaps what matters is how we work out our calling within our particular disability, as a member of His generous creation, open and full of possibilities.

Coles mugshotRevd Professor Alasdair Coles is an academic neurologist in Cambridge, UK, whose primary research interest is in the immunology and treatment of multiple sclerosis. He is the Professor of neuroimmunology at Cambridge University, and has a small research team managing clinical trials and doing human immunological laboratory work. He also does clinical work for two days a week as a consultant neurologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospitals. Dr Coles was ordained priest in the Church of England in 2009 and is now a minister in secular employment at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Dr Coles has also done some research on the neurological basis for religious experience, stemming from managing a small cohort of patients with spiritual experiences due to temporal lobe epilepsy. He is now engaged in a study, funded by the Templeton Foundation, of the spirituality of people with neurological disease in Cambridgeshire, and is editing a CUP book on religion in neurological disease.

18 thoughts on “Guest Post: Suffering and the Grace of God

  1. Michala February 11, 2016 / 11:34 am

    I understand the authors reservations regarding evolution & the role of mutations.
    Why would a loving God inflict pain & suffering during the process of evolution?

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  2. unkleE February 11, 2016 / 11:35 am

    Thanks for this honest reflection. Without having any of your knowledge of genetics and evolution, I have come to similar conclusions – that we have to re-think “the Fall” and that God’s creation contained things we would call evil.

    I too cannot understand this, and I find it a problem. But my reasons to believe in God and to follow Jesus are much greater than this problem, and so I just let them sit side-by-side in my mind – the evidence of the grace of God and the problem of suffering and pain.

    I think that is the reality of being human – we will always have unanswered questions, and this is the biggest of them all.

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  3. thebookofworks February 11, 2016 / 3:09 pm

    My perspective is different, having been raised and grown to adulthood as an atheist. For me, suffering, death and disease were perfectly natural, as was evil, competition, selfishness, hatred, and amorality. What puzzled me, in my previous worldview, was goodness, beauty, sacrifice, genius, devotion, loyalty.

    I now believe that God created an incredible (in the literal sense) universe, and to paraphrase the Book of Job, we were not there, and we cannot imagine the majesty of that act. I do not believe the world was perfect before the Fall, (and some theologians agree), and I do not think evolution is cruel, but miraculous. I do agree with your last paragraph, that our human perspective is severely limited, and not to be trusted.

    If fact we can see that ourselves by taking a longer view. Yes, we will all die and we all suffer, some more than others, but the fact is that polio is no more, smallpox is no more, human lifespan is increasing at a linear rate, all over the world, and doctors like you are saving people and improving their lives. God has given us many gifts, including the power to make the world good, and the free will to choose to do so.

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  4. djwimago February 11, 2016 / 3:55 pm

    Having spent a considerable amount of time considering the notion of the goodness of the God of the Judeo/Christian Scriptures in the light of evolution—the existence of an omnibenevolent creator—in the light of all the ‘Ps’ of biological evolution: Predation, Plague, Parasitism and, of course ‘pain’—it occurs to me that we (Christians, at least) do not need to ‘labor’ on the prefix ‘omni’. Whilst, I am convinced that the God of the Judeo/Christian scriptures is omnipotent and even omnipresent it does not follow that the same God has to fall in line with our reasoning—i.e. that there should be a world in which all creatures benefit equally.
    My conclusion from the four or more years researching the Problem of (natural) Evil is that there isn’t so much of a problem of ‘evil’ but that this world (as far as presently understood) is the only possibly world in which the Creator God could bring about a state of affairs that allows for this very same God to become ‘one of us’—to experience, in his thirty plus years of incarnation, the worst of life’s effects—giving his life as a ransom.

    Dr Coles is, I believe, correct when he refers to the Grace that is—for those presently existing—Future Grace. The Fall though does, I believe, play a part in much that produces suffering–but it is not the cause of the process through which God has created the biosphere.

    I have recently published a revised version of a research for which I was awarded a MRes degree by the University of Exeter

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  5. David Thomson February 11, 2016 / 5:52 pm

    Reblogged this on Bishop's Blog and commented:
    Real honesty and wisdom here from one of priests in the diocese, Alasdair Coles, as he and we confront not just suffering but its structural place in creation. Thank you Alasdair!

    Like

  6. Ian Benson February 11, 2016 / 6:54 pm

    Christopher Southgate in his book “The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil” has some very helpful comments on the necessity of the creation through evolution involving pain in order to produce not only human beings who could voluntarily love God, but also real values in the animal and plant kingdoms.

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  7. Michala February 11, 2016 / 9:40 pm

    Why would a loving God inflict pain & suffering during the process of evolution or the biblical creation, depending on your perspective.
    You could argue Adam & Eve ( if perceived as modern humans) co existed & bred with Neanderthals who were ” giants” on the earth,but flawed by illness & disease.

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  8. Baldscientist February 12, 2016 / 3:25 am

    I completely agree with your thoughts. However, as the parent of a disabled young man, it is very difficult for me to see the proverbial “divine silver lining” of my son’s condition. I hope with all my heart that there will indeed be a day when “… He will wipe all (our) tears…”. Thanks for the post.

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  9. Michala February 12, 2016 / 9:58 am

    Please note, the word ‘ giant’ can also be interpreted as ‘ big’ or ‘powerful’.
    The Fall or Original sin could relate to disease passed down from ancient humans /civilisations who interbred with modern humans.

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    • Michala February 12, 2016 / 1:30 pm

      It seems Genesis in the Old Testament could be based on factual events wrapped up in allegory/ symbolic language ,translated from oral traditions.
      New evidence of human fossils ( Neanderthal & other races co existing with modern humans) have been located in the Middle Eastern countries near the Persian Gulf.
      Archeology evidence also supports events in the Bible.

      If you look closely, the Bible does correlate with new archeological findings.
      However, there are different interpretations & debatable versions of these findings depending on how you fit the evidence with different varied time lines.

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  10. Discuss February 12, 2016 / 7:07 pm

    One of the best posts I’ve seen on Christianity and evolution. And I have the same types of concerns as I read the Old Testament. I’m thinking that we have made God into something that he isn’t. And I’d love to hear what an African or Chinese Christian thinks of these same concerns. Might they be different I wonder?

    Of course we need to address things like this honestly if we are to engage with our brother and sisters who don’t believe in evolution at all.

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    • Michala February 16, 2016 / 1:33 am

      Yep honesty in science should be a priority.
      To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced evolution theory is accurate esp human evolution & the origins of man.This is due to the incomplete lineage & debatable dating methods.

      At one time our Earth must have resembled something akin to the ” planet of the apes” which is quite a bizare thought.

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  11. Dr Gregroy Laughery February 14, 2016 / 9:51 am

    Thanks Alasdair. These are really helpful comments and it’s admirable that you have stated then openly. Seems to me that one of the essentials in this type of discussion is to begin to get to grips with Genesis 1-3. We have made an attempt to do just that from a hermeneutical and literary perspective in our new book From Evolution to Eden. Making Sense of Early Genesis. Another important issue that needs more attention is the subject of Divine action. Maybe it’s not all that we sometimes have assumed it to be.

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  12. Simon May 24, 2016 / 9:19 pm

    I think there’s another option besides giving up on the explanatory power of the Fall. We know, for example, that the effects of Jesus’s death on the cross were not limited to the post-cross era, but enabled God’s people to be forgiven long before the event (Romans 3:25). In other words, the cross worked backwards in time as well as forwards. I view the Fall as being similar. God set up the universe to reflect what was to come – i.e. the rejection of his authority by the creatures he called to be his images. Death and suffering preceded the Fall in time, but can still be said to be in some ways the result of it.

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    • Ruth M. Bancewicz May 26, 2016 / 8:49 am

      Thanks Simon, but I feel I know you well enough (I won’t mention how many years, or which birthday milestone we and our gap-year contemporaries are passing through this academic year) to ask – how is that not a convenient fudge?

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      • Simon June 7, 2016 / 5:41 pm

        Hi Ruth. Yes, enjoy your celebrations! Re. my post, I don’t think convenient = fudge in this case. Why do you think so?
        I reckon a sensitive reading of Genesis permits (or even provokes) the idea that death was in the world before chapter 3. Obviously that lines up – conveniently – with our scientific account of things. But theologically I think Romans 5 requires me to believe that all death is a consequence of the Fall, and without our rebellion against God, the world would be a different place.
        So at first glance the timeline appears incompatible with the theology.
        But then we consider an eternal God who created time and space, who is not limited by them, and who interacts sovereignly and omnisciently within them. Although he sent Jesus to die at a particular time in history, his eternal plans are such that Jesus can also be described as having been “slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8), and the effects of his death certainly cover all human history, whether before or after the event (Rom 3:25). Then we can note the way Paul contrasts the sin of Adam with the obedience of Christ in Romans 5. Just as Jesus’s death brought life for all – before or after the event – so Adam’s sin brought death to all – and here I feel it’s no fudge to add “before or after the event”!
        So I think the Bible itself suggests that God could have created a universe without suffering and death, but chose not to (yet) because this present order reflects the rebellion he knew was coming. Our response to God affected his act of creation 13.7 billion years ago.
        I know these are not original thoughts… but what do you think?

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      • pedleysd June 7, 2016 / 5:52 pm

        Hi Ruth. Yes, enjoy your celebrations! Re my post, I don’t think convenient = fudge in this case. Why do you think so?
        I reckon a sensitive reading of Genesis permits (or even provokes) the idea that death was in the world before chapter 3. Obviously that lines up – conveniently – with our scientific account of things. But theologically, Romans 5 requires me to believe that all death is a consequence of the Fall, and without our rebellion against God, the world would be a very different place.
        So at first glance the timeline appears incompatible with the theology.
        But we believe in a God who created time and space, and who interacts sovereignly and omnisciently within it. Although he sent Jesus to die at a particular time in history, his plans are such that Jesus can also be described as having been “slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8). So, as I said, the effects of the cross cover all human history, whether before or after the event (Rom 3:25). Then we can note the way Paul contrasts the sin of Adam with the cross of Christ in Romans 5. Just as Jesus’s death brought life for all – before or after the event – so Adam’s sin brought death to all – and here I feel it’s no fudge to add “before or after the event”!
        So I think the Bible itself suggests that our human response to God affected his act of creation 13.7 billion years ago.
        I know those are not original thoughts! But what do you think?

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        • Ruth M. Bancewicz June 8, 2016 / 4:43 pm

          Hi Simon, I guess it just sounds a big convoluted – like doing theological limbo. Romans 5 could be interpreted as being about human death. Also, how do we know what God’s initial good creation looked like? We have to avoid projecting our own desires onto that picture. Just a couple of thoughts about why I don’t find that view generally convincing…

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