The other evening, I watched for perhaps the third or fourth time Shadowlands, the film about how C. S. Lewis fell in love with his wife, Joy, and then watched her die of cancer. Sometimes, I feel like the film caricatures Lewis’s pre-love intellectualism too much, but then perhaps I am sensitive because I am prone to similar intellectualism. In the main, though, the film is a fairly good comparison of the differing approaches to grief and loss represented in Lewis’s Problem of Pain and his later A Grief Observed. In any case, it got me thinking about death and why philosophical and spiritual responses seem so flat in the moment when we most need them, when we are confronted with the deaths of those close to us. There are some particularly forceful moments in the film where well meaning Christians attempt to comfort Lewis with hollow sounding “answers,” and he rightly rebuffs them; I say rightly because having lost two friends to death, one a number of years ago in my undergrad, and another a year and a half ago, I know that such answers are offensive and irresponsible; personally, I prefer to mourn for my dead friends rather than burying them in obscenely simplistic platitudes.
In any case, I started to wonder why exactly such facile answers are so problematic, and realized that it is really because there is not a thing out there called “death”; rather, what we mean when we talk about death is the loss of someone – and no two people who die are the same. A general answer can’t address the particulars of the friends I have lost; when I mourn the death of my friends, I am not mourning an event, but the loss of someone, with particular traits, habits, quirks and virtues. There is no one in the world who can or should replace that person. And that loss is something we will carry around always inside ourselves this side of heaven.
I think this is maybe why God is wise in not answering the so-called problem of evil in the Bible, or at least not answering it in the way Leibniz would have liked. The book of Job of course would have been an ideal place to do this, but this is not what God does when he shows up at the end of the book. Neither Job nor God denigrate with a philosophical proposition the depth of things that are lost in the suffering of persons in the world; people like Job’s children are not replicable, and cannot be doubled or replaced like so many sheep or cattle, as God sensitively recognizes at the end of the book in his restoration of Job. Only resurrection can answer this, which is part of why Job has traditionally been taken as one of the first OT figures to prophesy NT resurrection.
And this too is, I think, why the New Testament likewise sidesteps the problem of evil. Of course it gives the same general answer as the Old Testament in terms of causality, that death and evil came about through sin. But particular instances go unanswered. Jesus was asked why people perished when a tower fell on them, and he simply implied that they were no worse sinners than anyone else, and noted elliptically that everyone else would perish as well.
Of course, this is all to the good because it seems to me that, when we look for a God who will answer the problem of evil in philosophically or spiritually trite ways, we are really looking for a figure like the military Messiah the Jewish people had come to expect. We want someone to deal with evil, death and suffering so we can go on living the way we want without being bothered. The problem, of course, is that the way we want to live when we turn to such trite answers is one which steamrolls any hiccups in our well arranged life, including those persons who remind us of such hiccups. God will not philosophically justify his ways to us when he knows that we will take such a justification and use it to justify our own negligence; if God permits evil and suffering to simply happen and sits back letting things run their course, we will be inclined to imitate him, perhaps even eagerly – it sounds like a good capitalist proposition. Such a God was of course required to legitimate the brutality of a post-Enlightenment world, but He is not the Christian God. The Christian God gives us Himself, again, and again, and again.
To return to the beginning of the post, this is why I think Christianity offers one of the best responses to the individualities of the people we lose. God cares too much about his world to give a general response to death; he sees the sparrow fall, and is a God of particulars, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of my friends A and M who are now with Him. No account of death and suffering can be sufficient that does not include all the tiniest details of the things that have been lost. God respects us and loves us enough to withhold from us every answer that would let us get away with anything less than loving his creation in its entirety. His silence is not one of embarrassment or stupidity, but rather that deep, pregnant silence reserved for things too awesome and complex to grasp with human language. For us, His own living Word beyond all words – Christ in us, the hope of glory – will have to be enough.