In the heyday of A.O.L. Instant Messenger, fifteen-year-old me embraced the role of Job’s comforters. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time, and in hindsight I’d say it’s a good thing I did. That’s because it exposed me as a shallow fraud.
Thanks to a conversation with my friend Tom one August night, my life was changed. It’s because of him that I’m obsessed with philosophy and theology. In this post I want to explain why.
Have You Considered My Servant Job?
I’ve been accustomed to the churchgoing milieu ever since I was about five years old. Even so, I hadn’t really devoted my life to Christ until I was in my mid-teens. Only a couple months after I made that decision, I found myself confronted with Tom’s inquiring mind after he faced some painful challenges to his own faith.
Tom grew up in a Christian home, and for a time his father was an itinerant preacher. His mother’s side of the family was also deeply devoted to the Bible, and some of his relatives even took the time to memorize whole portions of it.
Tom was baptized at about the age of eight and loved God intensely. Over the years he devoted himself to reading the Bible through many times and enjoyed hearing his father preach to large crowds. Then, like so many people, his faith was shaken when disaster struck his family.
Curse God and Die
One day his uncle contracted stomach cancer. Even though Tom’s devout family gathered and prayed, his uncle still passed away. This wasn’t enough to make Tom stop believing in God, but it shook his faith.
Tom was able to hold on to his beliefs because another uncle of his gave him guidance. He was told that God allows evil and suffering to occur in our lives largely because he cannot interfere with human free will. This answer satisfied Tom, and he was able to face his grief with God at his side.
But that uncle who had counseled him was also stricken by disease some time later. He also died.
This left Tom without a strong, believing friend and without answers. The appeal to free will no longer seemed to let God off the hook for what he allowed to happen to Tom’s family. He needed answers, and he turned to me to help him.
He asked me to explain to him how God, evil, and suffering could simultaneously exist in the world. I knew nothing about how philosophers had wrestled with the so-called “Problem of Evil,” so I gave it my best shot. It turns out my best shot was no better than what Job’s comforters could provide to Job.
To this day, I regret what I told him: His uncles, even his believing uncle, had somewhere sinned and God allowed Satan to infect them with their terminal diseases. They must have cursed God and died. I also made the unorthodox claim that God created evil, but he has always had complete control over it. I couldn’t explain that fact, but said we needed to leave answering conundrums like this until we get to Heaven. What an uninformed, fanatic fool I was.
Where Were You?
Naturally, my answers weren’t enough for Tom. He proceeded to walk me through an argument from evil that, to him at the time, seemed like a strong argument against God’s existence. I had no idea what to make of it. Honestly, I didn’t even know what deductive logic was. But Tom did. He was able to navigate the conversation with collegiate intelligence while I looked like I hadn’t even learned the alphabet yet.
Even more than that, he asked me to consider a number of objections that called the Bible’s reliability into question. I hadn’t heard any of those objections before either.
By the end of our conversation I knew that I had failed to give an adequate answer to Tom’s questions.
I had no idea, at bottom, how the co-existence of God and evil in the world could possibily work. The issue was much deeper than I had ever imagined. At the end of our conversation I vowed to explore the topic further, and to address any and all of the doubts that he raised about the Bible.
Really, I felt ashamed. But I vowed that I would do anything I could so that my friend might keep his belief in God. He was my best friend, and I just wanted him to be saved.
Then Tom said something to me that changed the trajectory of my life. Even though he wasn’t sure if God existed or not, he encouraged me to bring my questions to God and pursue them into the ground. It’s simply the best intellectual advice I’ve ever received:
The final most important thing, if you have a question, [is to never], ever put it on the back burner. Seek an answer, for if no answer can be [found], a reasonable one can be forged by you. Man has sought answers to questions forever. You are capable of answering questions. Do not fear questions that seem contradictory to your own purposes; instead seek to answer them.
I was overwhelmed and exhausted by our conversation. Even though I vowed to pursue the questions that Tom raised, I felt small. Who was I to think I could even begin to answer his objections? Where was I when God set the world in motion?
Nothing New Under the Sun
The truth is, to adequately answer Tom’s worry about the existence of evil, I found that I needed to have an adequate grasp of philosophy. Likewise, in order to reason through his other objections, I found that I needed to learn logic (a branch philosophy).
I also found that other Christian thinkers—both ancient and contemporary—knew this. Famously, St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that he was troubled by the existence of evil in the world. This led him to become a “hearer” in a group called the “Manichees.” When he read Cicero’s Hortensius, he was also inspired to pursue philosophical reasoning. It was partly because of philosophical reasoning, the Problem of Evil, and his disillusionment with the Manichees that Augustine became one of the most important Christian thinkers of all time.
Tom’s questions are nothing new. To be honest, there are even more that I discovered as I studied history, philosophy, and the biblical text. People of all ages are asking questions about the Christian faith, and they deserve answers. Yet, like so many other things in the Christian milieu, it remains the case that many are called, but few are chosen.
I want to be one of the chosen. I want to align myself with the rich Christian heritage of integrating philosophy and theology. I’m persuaded that philosophy is as the medievals described it: the handmaiden of theology. I’m still driven to do this because of that one conversation I had with Tom when I was fifteen. God willing, I want to do it for the rest of my life and make a career out of it too.
Following on Tom’s injunction for me to pursue answering questions, he left me with another thought. Let it be an encouragement to you, lest you think that studying philosophy will deter you from a deep relationship with the Christian God:
To me, [answering questions] shows faith. For the faithful knows the answer to his question will support his conclusion and not deter it.
Don’t be afraid to seek answers.