Goodness Explained vs. Goodness Displayed
About twenty years ago, my dad felt a sharp pain in his leg and had to be rushed to the hospital. Dr. Frasco—a top-flight vascular surgeon—found my family in the hospital waiting room and told us that he needed to operate, and that although there wasn’t time to explain, due to the complexity of my dad’s condition, there was a good chance he would have to amputate my dad’s leg.
Despite Dr. Frasco’s qualifications, it was tempting in this situation to question him, to be suspicious of his prognosis and his chosen course of action. My dad looked perfectly healthy from the outside. Maybe this surgeon was taking the easy way out. Maybe he’d rather get an amputation over with now rather than have to battle operation after operation so my dad could keep his leg. These were understandable thoughts, and they were thoughts that my mom, my brother, and I had and that we discussed.
But suppose that Dr. Frasco had come to my family and said that during the operation, my dad was going to need a significant number of blood transfusions, and that they were having trouble finding a suitable donor. And suppose further that Dr. Frasco—out of compassion for my father and for my family—offered to donate his own blood. And suppose even further that Dr. Frasco did this at the risk of his own life, perhaps because such a large quantity of blood was needed.
Now, in this situation, my response to Dr. Frasco would change markedly. Maybe I couldn’t explain to you the reasons why Dr. Frasco might have to amputate my dad’s leg, and maybe initially I had reason to be suspicious of his prognosis. But if Dr. Frasco had offered my dad his own blood, I would have been convinced that he was for us, I would have been convinced that we could trust him, and I would have been rightly convinced of this. Even if Dr. Frasco’s reasoning remained opaque to me, he would have done something so indisputably loving and so inordinately costly that I could only rationally conclude that he was for my family.
There are two ways to defend the goodness of a person when he or she is accused of wrongdoing. The first way is to explain the good reasons the person had for acting as he or she did. This is the more traditional approach to responding to the problem of evil, to respond by telling a story about why God might create and sustain a world that turned out like this one. But there is also a second way to defend the goodness of God against objections from evil and suffering—not by explaining goodness but by displaying goodness.
The Christian claim is that this is precisely what God has done for each of us. When he saw us hurting and in need of healing, he provided his own blood. He chose to join us in our suffering and to take on himself whatever suffering was necessary for us to be healed. He displayed his love in such an extravagant way that we have strong reason to believe that we can trust him, even when we don’t fully understand his ways.
Ironically, the famous atheist and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: “The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory [response to the problem of suffering] ever invented.”(1) Remarkably, Nietzsche was writing of the ancient Greeks here and, in his bias, didn’t make the connection to Christianity. As a Christian, however, I am very pleased to agree with him and then point emphatically to the cross of Jesus Christ.
At the cross of Jesus, we see the absolute uniqueness of the Christian response to suffering. In some religious traditions, the idea of God suffering is unthinkable; it is thought to make God weak. In others, to reach divinity is precisely to move beyond the possibility of suffering, to give up your attachments to other people so that you will never have to suffer for anyone. Only in Christ do we have a God who loves us enough to suffer with us, by us, and—ultimately—for us.
Vince Vitale is director of the Zacharias Institute and a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Francis Golffing (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 30.