Christmas seems banal to some, but Christ’s birth is unique. No other major religion has a founder who is God or one who dies so others may live. Muhammad and the Buddha both died from eating bad food.
The Prosperity Gospel is bad theology and bad storytelling. When someone notes every week a bank account growing larger, who cares? Memorable heroes face powerful and evil antagonists. They overcome obstacles to accomplish vital missions. Sometimes they sacrifice themselves for others.
This works even in tales for children. We might be mildly interested in the three little pigs and their mission of building houses, but the story is memorable because of the wolf’s big lungs and murderous disposition. The saga of Jack and Jill is intriguing not because Jack fell down and broke his crown, but because Jill went tumbling after: Did she sacrifice herself to help her mate?
Pastor Tim Keller, in his new book “Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering” (Dutton), examines several major theodicies—justifications of God’s ways. One major theodicy is that suffering can “empty us of our pride and lead us to find our true joy and only security in Christ.” That’s true, but it’s not slam-dunk satisfying because some people do not encounter the adversity they need, some get much more than seems fair, and some who are murdered do not have the opportunity for their hearts to grow two sizes.
Keller also asks hard questions about the popular “free will” theodicy, the idea that “God cannot lead us to do the right thing without violating our free will, and so evil is inevitable for free agents.” He writes that the Bible often shows God sovereignly directing our choices without violating our freedom. He notes that many atheists logically ask, Since we’re ready to violate the freedom of choice of a child walking into the path of an oncoming car, couldn’t a loving God have done more to keep Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit?
Keller points out the problems of other theodicies, including those based in natural law or emphasizing punishment. He concludes that each theodicy provides plausible explanation for some evil in the world but falls short of explaining all suffering. He then indicates his preference for “a defense” rather than theodicies: Instead of trying to say we know God’s mind, we acknowledge we don’t know all of God’s reasons, and ask skeptics whether they can prove that “God could not possibly have” any reasons for allowing suffering and evil. When skeptics have the burden of proof, they flunk.