The man simply said, “I no longer believe in God.” It was said without emotion, no effort to be dramatic. Clearly, he did not intend to shock me, or otherwise create a scene. He went on, “I do not believe there is a Supreme Being who looks down to protect me or even cares about me.”
He had seen so much of evil in the world, in his young years. Too much. As we talked, he was not really interested in a philosophical discussion or in hearing a theological argument for the existence of God. His comments came as a result of his conclusion that no Supreme Being could allow to happen what he had endured. He didn’t even sound angry, only disappointed.
In that moment I remembered a response I had read or heard somewhere, “Well, maybe you don’t believe in God, but God believes in you.” It seemed trite! Contrived. I did not say it. This was no time for theological “cuteness.”
I knew the depths of evil and the constant pain experienced by this young man, who was innocent and yet also wise beyond his years. Something within him had died before it had a chance to fully live.
I believed this was a time to acknowledge his journey through disappointment and despair, victimization and pain, not to minimize them. At the moment, he was simply trying to get through one night—not the whole rest of his life.
Perhaps I responded inadequately, but I was truthful.
“I understand,” I said. “Perhaps you will find God again.”
Of course, my young friend was asking the age-old question: How can God allow evil and suffering to exist? Then again, perhaps he would phrase it differently—that evil, suffering and catastrophes serve as evidence that no God exists. Or if a God does exist, certainly not a good God.
To put it even more personally: Why would a God allow me to go through all that I have experienced in so few years?
As the night went on, we talked not about God but about life. Life in the raw, as he had seen and experienced it. I listened to his description of how others had so little value for life, or at least for the lives of others. I had to hold back tears, and it was not easy. Here was Gilead with no balm. God had been erased from the equation.
It was a long night. But we made it through.
Sadly, this young man’s experience is not uncommon. Perhaps in too many instances, Christians keep themselves personally divorced from such real and genuine pain and suffering. However, I am sure pastors are confronted with these issues and questions almost daily.
I hear some televangelists—and perhaps other preachers as well—proclaiming that prosperity is evidence of God’s presence in a person’s life. That good people are “blessed” with continuous bliss and uninterrupted joy. And by inference, those who are not good are doomed to suffering and pain. This is “a God of the healthy and wealthy.”
I wish I could help my young friend understand why evil is so evil. Yes, why even the good and innocent suffer. For that matter, why anyone suffers. It is not as easy as simply presenting a logical, rational explanation, especially at a moment such as this one.
But the issue is not so much about evil and suffering, as it is about trying to understand the nature of God. Not a new topic, except perhaps for one who considers it in the midst of his or her suffering. Then it is new. Existentially new!
I am glad that God sent me to the young man that night, not so that I could give him answers, for he asked no questions. He only acknowledged, “I no longer believe in God.” I, in turn, acknowledged that I understood his place of disbelief and hoped that in some future time he would find God again. I will join him on his journey.
It is not always easy to believe in God. I think no one understands that more profoundly than God!
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.