March 8, 2024

Ivan’s Children

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s (1821—1881) greatest novel, Ivan Karamazov, who symbolized skepticism about the goodness of God, challenged his brother Aloysa, a monk who symbolized more traditional faith. Ivan begins with a litany of tragic stories, all involving children (according to Joseph Frank’s epic biography, Dostoyevsky: A Writer in His Time,[i] many of these stories were true), including one about a landlord who, having stripped an eight-year-old serf boy naked, set his hunting dogs upon him as the child’s mother watched in horror. Ivan then challenged his brother, wanting to know how, ultimately, these incidents (and others) could ever be justified, even at the end of the age when the divine harmony is to be restored, when all insufferable questions are to be resolved, and when all God’s ways are to be forever vindicated before men and angels.

“I want to see with my own eyes,” thundered Ivan, “the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. . . . But then there are the children, and what am I do to about them?  That is a question I can’t answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, they are numbers of questions, but I’ve taken only the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please?”[ii]

The Freedom Needed

Contrary to the hype, there are good arguments not just for the existence of God but for Christianity itself. Yet no matter how good the arguments, how logical, rational, and compelling, what these arguments don’t do, either alone or separately, is answer Ivan’s question: “[T]he children . . . what am I do to about them?” This is, inevitably, the most logical and reasonable question when faith in a loving God exists in a world where hunting dogs are set upon 8-year-olds.

“If God is perfectly loving,” wrote Scottish philosopher John H. Hick, “he must wish to abolish evil; and if he is all powerful, he must be able to abolish evil.  But evil exists; therefore, God cannot be both omnipotent and perfectly loving.”[iii] Unless one understands that omnipotence does not mean the logically impossible.

Can an all-powerful God create a triangle with four sides? No, because the moment that it has four sides it’s not a triangle. Can an omnipotent God make 6+12= –54? No because the moment it is –54 it is not 6+12. Can omnipotence create a perfect circle with four right angles? No, because the moment it has four right angles it’s no longer a circle.

Finally, can omnipotence, can our omnipotent God, can Yahweh—the One “who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (Rev. 14:7)— can He create a love that is forced? No, because the moment that it is forced it’s no longer love. Love, to be love, must be freely given or else it’s no more love than a shape with four sides is a triangle. Love, by definition, must be freely expressed. Love without freedom is as impossible as is a cube without breadth, height, or width.

Logical Flow

Ok, so God had no choice: if He wanted beings who could love Him, or love others, He had to make them free. But what required our presence in the cosmos to begin with? What logical contradiction would our non-existence have created? None.  The universe, in fact, did fine without us, thank you.

Which leads to the next problem. If God is all-knowing, He must have known that evil and suffering would arise in a world that He did not have to create. And yet—knowing what would happen (see 2 Timothy 1:9; Revelation 13:8; Titus 1:2)—He created it, and us, anyway.  

However, as a loving God (Romans 8:35, 37-39; Ephesians 3: 18,19; Psalm 5:11-12; 36:5-7; 1 John 3:1; 4:8), the Lord must have known too that—though He created us, and that humans would blow it—He would still, ultimately, make all things right. That is, in the end, His love and goodness and justice would prevail.

Yet this reasoning leads to the most vexing question of all: If all of God’s ways are to be exonerated at the end of the age, if His goodness and love will be revealed to all the intelligences of creation, how can God justify working it out here, in the dirt, in human blood, sweat, and tears, in the children—while He’s worshipped and adored by seraphim and cherubim and whoever else float peacefully about His cosmic throne? Whatever the universal moral issues to be resolved in the great controversy between good and evil, between Christ and Satan; however efficiently and permanently the promised answers will erase all doubts, iron out all absurdities, and wipe away all tears—the question remains: Why should an omnipotent, omniscient God be safely ensconced in heaven while we pathetic creatures crawl helplessly on our bellies here as He resolves the great controversy to His own honor and glory?

Never Another’s

Though a 19th century Russian, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a believer in God, had asked this difficult question, a 19th century German, Friedrich Nietzsche, an atheist, helped answer it. “In the final analysis,” Nietzsche wrote, “one experiences only oneself.”[iv]

Think about it. In the 6,000 years of human misery, “one experiences only oneself.” That is, no person ever suffered more than an individual can suffer. We know only our own pain, only our own suffering, never another’s. We shed only our own tears, and bleed only our own blood, never anyone else’s. We cannot splice into someone else’s nerves and feel a prick of their pain, a spasm of their woe. When we weep for another’s tragedy it’s always, and only, our own tears, our own sadness—never another’s.

We talk about the sum total of human suffering. Yet human suffering is never summed up or totaled. It’s always, and only, experienced individually, personally. Three thousand dead on 9/11, 6,000,000 in the Holocaust, 230,000 in the Thailand Tsunami—the numbers stun us, yes, but not one of those victims ever suffered more than what one individual can suffer.

Praying for his people, Solomon said: “whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people Israel, when each one knows his own burden and his own grief, and spreads out his hands to this temple” (2 Chron. 6:29; italic supplied).  The Hebrew word for “grief” comes from makhov, which means pain, suffering, hurt. Everyone, in all human history, has known only his or her own makhov, his or her own pain, hurt, suffering, and never a speck more.

The Exception

With one exception: Jesus on the cross. Describing Christ’s death in our behalf, Isaiah writes—"Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). Whose griefs? Whose sorrows? Ours, as in the whole world’s, as in every human who has ever lived—their griefs and their sorrows. (See 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 2:9). The Hebrew word translated “sorrows” in Isaiah 53:4 is the plural of makhov, in 2 Chronicles 6:29. But instead of the third person singular (“his own makhov”) Isaiah 53:4 uses the first person plural: He has “carried our makhov.”  Ours. As in all the world’s. The grief, the pain, the makhov that we know only personally, only individually—Jesus experienced corporately on the cross. He, Jesus, bore our griefs, our sorrows. He faced something worse than any of us individually ever have or ever will. 

Writing about Jesus on the cross, Ellen White said: “Human nature can endure but a limited amount of test and trial. The finite can only endure the finite measure, and human nature succumbs; but the nature of Christ had a greater capacity for suffering; for the human existed in the divine nature, and created a capacity for suffering to endure that which resulted from the sins of a lost world.”[v]     

Far, then, from “an omnipotent, omniscient God [being] safely ensconced in heaven while we pathetic creatures crawl helplessly on our bellies here,” our omnipotent, omniscient God, Jesus, came to this world and suffered for sin worse than any of His fallen creatures ever could. So sacred was the freedom needed for love that, rather than create beings who could not love, God created us anyway, knowing from “before time began” (2 Tim. 1:9) that this freedom would lead Him to the cross, where He would suffer, corporately suffer, the makhov that each one of us suffers only individually.

Sure, this doesn’t’ answer Ivan’s question, “[T]he children . . . what am I do to about them?” Nothing answers it. Nothing should. What—we want good logical reasons for an eight-year-old to be ripped apart by hunting dogs? To logically explain it would be all but to justify it—and evil can’t, and shouldn’t, be justified.

Instead, we look to Christ crucified, to the Creator of the cosmos on a cross, which shows that for the sake of love, true love, our God in heaven came down to this earth and endured more than any of us, including Ivan’s children, ever will.

[i] Joseph Frank, Dostoyevsky: A Writer for His Time (Princeton University Press, 2010)

[ii] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 274.

[iii] John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 3rd ed., (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983), p. 40.

[iv] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (New York; Penguin Books, 1969), p. 173.

[v]  Ellen G. White, Bible Commentary, vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), p. 1103.