Gary Habermas, On "Evil, the Resurrection and the Example of Jesus"

As announced earlier I’m planning on reviewing every chapter in the new anthology on the problem of suffering titled, God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain,edited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew. [To read other entries in this series just click on the "God and Evil" tag below this post].

This time up is Gary Habermas's chapter, "Evil, the Resurrection and the Example of Jesus" (pp. 163-175). Let me say from the outset that Gary is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. In fact, I'll say this about Paul Copan and William Lane Craig too, other Christian apologists in this book. Too often people who have never met, who are on opposite sides of these debates, demonize each other. I think doing so is wrong, even if I think the ideas they espouse are false and harmful to people and to society in general, as they surely think about my ideas. When I argue against them, or challenge Craig to a debate, it is not personal with me at all. I like them very much and consider all three of them to be my personal friends.

Gary is very concerned with people, and it's crystal clear in this chapter of his. I was expecting another failed argument on behalf of the resurrection of Jesus. Instead, his chapter is unapologetically pastoral in nature. He understands pain and doubt. In it he tells about the pain of watching his wife dying of cancer.

Here's how he put it in an article that was probably the springboard for his chapter:
How do our most cherished doctrines fare when tested in the blistering fires of real life? In 1995 my wife Debbie had the flu. When it didn't go away as quickly as it should have, we were sent to the hospital for tests. The first sentence I remember the doctor uttering was, "You've got some serious problems here."

My heart sunk into my stomach and both turned instantly to water. I had to sit down. Little did I know that my belief in Jesus' resurrection was about to be severely tested by the sting of pain and grief. Debbie was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Four months later she passed away at the age of 43 years, after just celebrating our 23rd anniversary.

I had lost my best friend. Companionship became my most noticeable lack, sometimes seeming unbearable.

Further, all four children lived at home. Witnessing their pain was another huge hurt. Did they have to suffer like this? Would watching their mom die leave extended scars? Would they blame God? I was suffering a double dose of grief. I often thought that I could not have experienced any worse pain.

During Debbie's suffering, I regularly took refuge in the truth of Jesus' resurrection. It had been my major research area for 25 years. So I appreciated the student who asked, "What would you do now if Jesus hadn't been raised from the dead?" I knew this event had a historical, theoretical side, but I wasn't fully aware of its practical power. I had much to learn about applying the resurrection to life. LINK
Doesn't your heart just break for him as it does mine, even though this happened nearly twenty years ago? He knows pain. That's why he can offer pastoral advice.

But is it any good? Does his faith cause more emotional pain than if he didn't have it? Is his answer reasonable based on evidence from within his own religious faith? Those are the questions I want to pursue since his chapter raises them. He does not argue for the truth of the Bible nor for the resurrection of Jesus. He assumes both. Undercutting his faith, as I do, would show that he has a false hope, even if it helps him overcome the difficulties of life. So even if his faith helps him I would rather have my feet planted firmly on solid ground. I think that is the difference, the dividing line, between people of faith and nonbelievers like me. People of faith don't have the inner strength or mental fortitude to accept the facts of life apart from a false hope. Faith is an unnecessary crutch believers use to walk with, while others of us don't need it.

So let me offer some "pastoral" advice for my atheist friends in pain before proceeding. The most blunt way it has been put is this: "Shit happens and then you die." Not too comforting is it? Sounds pretty bleak, even sort of depressing when put like this. But nonbelievers do not reject the evidence for a conclusion simply because they dislike the conclusion. It takes a special sort of person to do this. This makes all the difference between us and why we are nonbelievers in the first place. We can handle the truth. We can face the facts. And we can live good, loving, productive, meaningful, hopeful and happy lives knowing the truth. It makes no difference to us now that in a billion years nothing we do will matter. However, what we do matters to the ones we love and who love us.

The emotional and physical pain we experience in our lives is the same as believers. What we don't have to struggle with, as Habermas does, is the intellectual pain of God's silence when we suffer. That kind of pain adds to the pain of suffering. We don't have it. We are better off without it. Death and suffering are what we expect in life. We take the good with the bad. We can only hope that we have more happiness in our lives than pain.

I'm reminded here of M. Scott Peck's famous opening to his book, The Road Less Traveled:
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult--once we truly understand and accept it--then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Like Habermas and other believers everyone experiences suffering and pain, some of us more than others. Nonbelievers just don't have to struggle with why life is difficult, and that makes all the difference. For if we truly accept it, life is no longer as difficult.

Having said this, Habermas offers the best advice I have ever read to Christians who experience pain, based on Christian assumptions. So let's look at it.

First off he admits that for all of the Christian responses to divine hiddenness arguments, they are still quite bothered by God's silence. He says, "...probably the most common issue I hear today has to do broadly with believers who are bothered by the subject of God's silence" (p.166). It would seem to me they either haven't heard of these responses or they are falling on deaf ears. I suspect it's both, but they do fall on deaf ears. Habermas knows of these responses and yet still struggled with the pain of losing his wife, you see.

Habermas argues, correctly in my opinion, that "the primary cause of our emotional suffering is internal, emanating from our own false beliefs. Whereas rational, true or good beliefs about reality promote positive results, irrational or bad beliefs often have painful consequences" (p. 168). What beliefs serve as a corrective to help Christians in their pain and suffering? The first one is that "suffering is at the heart of the gospel." God never promised a life without suffering, he notes. In fact, Jesus suffered as did the early disciples. So "believers should actually expect to suffer" as well. He says, "Scripture does not teach that believers will be exempted from suffering, even from the worst sorts. Neither do the lives of the saints bear this out." And he argues that, "Somehow we need to drive home these points, and forcefully so" (p. 170-71). A second one, only briefly mentioned, is that God knows why they suffer and is by their side. The third one is that Christians should focus on their heavenly reward, saying, "This is a truth that we should always concentrate on, for it both changes our perspective on this life as well as providing motivation in the present" (p. 174).

What can we say in response? First let's look at God's supposed promises:
God provides for our daily needs:

“Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” —Matthew 6:25-32

God answers prayers:

“This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.” —1 John 5:14-15

"Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you." Jeremiah 29:12

"Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear." Isaiah 65:24

"This is the assurance we have in approaching God; that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." 1 John 5:14

God gives us the desires of our hearts:

“Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” —Psalm 37:4

God heals our diseases:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases.” —Psalm 103:1-3

God's promise of long life:

"For through me your days will be many, and years will be added to your life." - Proverbs 9:11

God's promises of protection:

"The Lord will keep you from all harm--he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore." Psalm 121:7, 8

" When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames willnot set you ablaze." Isaiah 43:1,2

"But whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm." Proverbs 1:33

Promises of deliverance:

“For God will deliver the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper.” Psalms 72:12

“But the salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the LORD shall help them and deliver them; He shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in Him.” Psalms 37:39-40.
There are a lot of these kinds of promises in the Bible. Promises. Promises. No wonder Christians struggle so much when they suffer! If Habermas is correct then why did his God make these promises? That doesn't make any sense to me at all. Either Habermas is correct or God is, you see. It seems clear to me Habermas is eisegeting the Bible based on the facts of experience, not exegeting it. He needs to have a pastoral answer so badly that he denies the Bible, even though he is a card carrying inerrantist. Perhaps he ought to be ejected from the Evangelical Theological Society for this too. He's basically accepted the advice of M. Scott Peck, non-Christian advice I accept, and finds a way to gerrymander around the Bible to make the facts fit what he wants it to say. By "spoiling the Egyptians" in this manner he is denying what his own God said. Typical Christian. Do or say anything that can to be said in order to save one's faith. The problem is that the faith he saves is not the faith handed down to him. For now he cannot have hope in God's promises. God cannot be counted on to do what he promised any longer.

Furthermore, if his God does fulfill his promises, even partially, then where is the evidence of this in the lives of so many Christan people? Shit happens. It's random. It happens to all of us. And there isn't any evidence Christian people overcome the pain and suffering in their lives any better than non-Christian people do, including non-believers themselves. I suspect this would be a great idea to be scientifically tested in the future.

There are other things to consider as well. I don't have to struggle with God in prayer to find his will for my life, nor do I have to eisegete an ancient barbaric sacred book to discover how to solve ethical dilemma's in the modern world, nor do I have to feel guilty for not obeying the religious demands of such a God (praying the appropriate number of minutes or hours per day, reading the Bible, tithing, forgiving my neighbor, etc), nor do I have to worry about a divine mind-reader who is monitoring my thoughts and doubts either. I never understood the guilt and stress this placed on me until after I left the faith, but it is far from what Jesus supposedly described when saying, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Coupling these additional considerations with the lack of evidence that God really cares for people who suffer, and the fact that Habermas has to deny a great deal within the Bible itself to come to his conclusions, even though this is the best pastoral answer I've ever read, it falls on deaf ears. I dare say it will fall on his own deaf ears should some other painful experience come his way, something I do not wish upon my friend.

As I have said before, it's better over here. Only people with a certain disposition, people who can handle the truth, people who can be brutally honest with the evidence wherever it leads, people who are not afraid of letting go of that crutch to find they can walk without it, will ever find this out.