Young Sean died soon after he went into hospital. The cancer raged through him with lightning speed. The poor, worn out child made his departure from the world and the parents were beyond consolation. It must have been three weeks later that the preacher got a call from Sean’s father who just couldn’t bear to think that the last word had been said when they laid Sean in the ground. But he couldn’t pretend to believe what he felt he had no grounds for. The opening line was simple.
I’m Sean’s dad, Do you remember me?
“I do,” the man said. “Have been wondering how you were getting on.”
“I told you at the hospital that I thought Sean’s life was pointless.” There was a catch in his voice. “But I didn’t feel that. I only meant…I was only saying since there’s no God then this whole existence was unplanned. Sean meant everything to us and whether anyone planned him to be here or not he made our lives richer, and our hearts are broken. I needed you to know that.”
“I knew it,” said the man that had talked to the parents at the hospital. “Nobody with a grain of sense would have thought you were making little of Sean. In any case, those were awful days and maybe not the best time for a discussion of world-views. I say ‘maybe’ because I’m not sure. In any case, here you are and I want to tell you I’m genuinely saddened by your loss.”
The grieving father said, “You said things I didn’t understand, things I wasn’t in the mood to wrestle with. But I knew you were saying that our son’s life and death had some profound meaning. It didn’t matter to me at the time for all I could think of was that he was suffering and going to die. I think I’m grasping at straws simply because I want to believe that there’s more to his life than a few happy years and a hard death. I’d like you to tell me what you meant, unless you were only saying stuff in an attempt to make us feel a bit better.”
They arranged to meet, met, sat a while, walked a while and then sat some more. And all the while they talked.
“I wanted to talk now,” said Danny, “because I think I’m more open now to being persuaded. I want to believe. As the months go by and the pain eases and I become adjusted to his being gone I’ll not feel the need as I feel it now. I know I’m vulnerable but I think I’ll recognize religious nonsense when I hear it.”
“All that makes sense,” the man said. “And I think you’re right in talking further about this while you feel this way. I hear a lot of talk about ‘rational argument’ and the fact that we shouldn’t discuss things while we’re emotional. Cool logic and rationality’s critically important but there are areas of life that don’t fit neatly into the realm of logic and rationality. Computers are marvelous things but they have their limitations; people are more than breathing computers. To battle injustice in society with nothing but rationality isn’t possible and there are things that human icicles can’t see. There are truths we can’t grasp until we experience love or driving passion. Not everything’s settled by the law of the excluded middle.”
“You said something about Sean and kids like him suffering for the world. If you meant that a child’s suffering might move some people to be more compassionate, I can see that. But it’s suspiciously like one of those empty pious remarks. It can equally make people bitter. Is that what you meant?”
“No, that’s not what I meant; and you’re right, a child’s suffering can work either way. We see that nearly every day, don’t we? Look, I told you that what I believe has nothing to support it if we can’t give Jesus Christ and the Judeo-Christian scriptures a fair hearing. And I do know that that is sometimes very difficult.”
“Do you mean I have to believe everything I read in the Bible before I can see Sean in a right way? If that’s it, we’re wasting our time here.”
“I don’t believe that at all, but the Bible does have a grand drift that comes to a climax in Jesus Christ. I’m one of those that believe God is the ultimate author of the Bible. I’m not interested here in theories of inspiration or exactly how He got that done, but I believe that in the final analysis we have the Bible we have because God wanted it that way. It’s like an historical drama that’s moving toward a finale of cosmic renewal, where all wrongs are righted and there’s a happy ending. Yes, I know, I know—. But it isn’t always wrong to want something to be true. The atheist H.J Blackham said the most powerful argument against atheism is that it’s too bad to be true.”
“So what is it you say we have to do, believe it before we can believe it?”
“I’m saying that to the degree that you’re able, give the Story a fair hearing. Do what you would do in so many other areas when someone is proposing something you don’t go along with—give it a good hearing. Nothing’s gained if we continue to reject it without really hearing it.”
“What if it’s stupid at every point? Should we pretend to be listening?”
“No, I think life’s too short to throw that much time away; but I’d hope that you wouldn’t think that the Christian faith is that far out of whack. I know you know people that are devoted Christians, people intellectually capable, maybe even brilliant, and practical too, so there must be something credible in it.
“Well, can we cut to the chase? I’ll just have to do my best and if I feel I’ve heard enough we’ll leave it at that. That okay with you?”
“Sure. But I need you to understand that ‘cutting to the chase’ doesn’t mean there’s a ten-minute presentation coming up. And you need to understand that to give it a fair hearing means you have to judge the Story within its own parameters. The blacksmith that proved iron ships couldn’t float by throwing a horseshoe into a barrel of water helped nobody.” And listen, Danny, what if it’s true? If the Story Jesus offers is true it changes the world, it changes our view of your beloved Sean; it changes things for you and Denise!
The biblical Story says that God created us out of love and joy. That He created us in His own image—that is, He created us to live in creative, joyful and holy reflection of Himself. So we didn’t arrive here by chance and our lives weren’t meant to be misery, a ceaseless brawl with disease and death.”
Sean’s dad stirred but said nothing.
“But the human family—our parents at that point—rebelled and ‘Sin’ entered. From there it spread throughout the human family, polluting and hurting everyone it touched. Sin enters people and it’s there it must be dealt with. God moved to deal with Sin and the curse that affected both the earth and the life on it. Death was part of that curse.”
“Spiteful, isn’t he!”
“I can see how you could view it that way, but that’s not the only option. The biblical claim is that God didn’t bring alienation from fullness of life—we did and He moved to redeem humanity from sin and mend the relationship—life was the end aim. He was and is the only source of fullness of life and we chose alienation and so chose abuse and hatred, hunger and illness and death. But God refused to dehumanize humans; He doesn’t work magic and He works within a world that has suffered from a moral collapse; He works with a human family that abuses its own and generates disease and deprivation. It’s humans He wants to redeem and He will not turn us into puppets or dolls—He simply won’t obliterate humanness.”
“The final goal is life, so he brings death? Even to innocent children? If you’re saying that God put the guilty to death I’d even have some reservations about that, but when you talk about his punishing children…I think that’s obscene.”
“God doesn’t punish the innocent! To punish those you know are innocent is obscene! But yes, the Bible says that He has chosen to allow even children and good people to endure pain and loss—He doesn’t turn such people into bionic beings. He has chosen to allow children to suffer! But, again, motive matters supremely, doesn’t it? You watched doctors do things to Sean that were physically appalling. No, you didn’t just watch it; you asked for it and even paid to have it done. You couldn’t have done that unless you loved the boy supremely. This was no easy decision for you and Denise and it was nothing but your love and compassion for the child that drove you to say yes to it. The aim was life! If you can even begin to credit a God with love for the human family—the kind of love you and Denise felt and feel for Sean—you are on your way to the possibility of seeing Sean’s life and suffering in a different light—on your way to seeing them as having something truly in common with Jesus’ suffering.
“I can see some point to that. But we did that only because Sean was desperately ill. We wouldn’t have done it to him if he’d been well. If you’re saying that God brought this on him that means God thought he was ill—I suppose you’d say with sin.”
“I’m making no suggestion that your child was a sinner! None! Nor do I say God was punishing him. GOD DOES NOT PUNISH THE INNOCENT! No, the point I want to make about paramedics and surgeons is that their motive is not spite, and it’s not to inflict pain. It’s to save life! Motive makes a difference to actions. And the more desperate the situation the more radical our loving response will be. Surgeons don’t amputate limbs to cure a cold.
To save your beloved from a killing bone cancer you subjected him to terrible trauma. If you’re able, give God the credit for wanting to bring life to a whole human family by dealing with the thing that devours it—Sin and its consequences and effects. I’m saying that your motive relative to Sean is God’s motive relative to His entire human family.”
“But how does Sean fit into this? I can make sense of my putting him to this because he was desperately ill, but are you saying God thought he was desperately ill and gave him bone cancer?”
“No, Sean was a member of a family that’s desperately ill and he suffered from the curse that was inevitable when God, the source of fullness of life, was rejected. GOD so created the human family that if it rejected Him curse would follow even though His response would be work to bring it back to life.”
“But why should an innocent child be punished for the crimes of the family? That stinks!”
“Listen, and listen to this carefully, God doesn’t punish the innocent! Punishment is only for the guilty. Sean’s suffering was not punishment for wrong that he did! He’s a sweet child but he’s a human child and because he is a human he shares in the suffering triggered by a God-rejecting human family. The biblical Story says that Jesus became a boy like your boy and that he suffered on behalf of the human family. Jesus and Sean have some things in common. God wouldn’t exempt His unique Son who was part of the human family—a family under God’s redeeming judgment—and He wouldn’t dehumanize Sean. I’m not suggesting that Sean and Jesus are altogether alike—Christ alone is the world’s Redeemer! The way in which God has moved to redeem the world comes to its highest point in Jesus Christ—a place no other can share. But the truth of vicarious suffering is at the heart of that process and it didn’t begin with Jesus on the cross and it didn’t end there.”
“But why should Sean suffer for anyone? Why him? How does his pain affect anything? Why should God pick on him? His suffering is so senseless!”
“It would be if atheism is true! It would all come down to ‘bad luck’. All life and death would turn out to be sheer chance. At some point you came to believe that, and it brings you no comfort. There’s a choice to make. Believe that death is another pointless inevitability in a pointless universe or believe that it’s an inevitable part of alienation from God. God made the choice to create humans to be humans and to be utterly dependent on Him for complete and unending well-being. God’s Son suffered and died as your son did. Christ rose from the dead and lives immortal now. His claim is that death is not the final word about Sean.”
“So, I’m to find comfort in the fact that Sean will live again?”
“Yes! That’s part of it. It’s the claim of the living Lord Jesus Christ over against the theory that the only future is the vast death of the universe, eternal darkness and unimaginable cold. All heat and light exhausted, all life extinguished and no possibility of it ever returning.”
“If that’s the truth, it’s the truth and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Of course! I’m just pointing out that facing a future of unyielding despair should make anyone want something better. I’m saying that Jesus Christ says we don’t have to believe that about Sean or anyone else like him. He isn’t gone forever and the life he lived here was not without significance. The Christ’s life, suffering and death give meaning to Sean’s. In the light of Jesus Christ we can’t look at suffering and death and simply damn it as pointless in a pointless universe. In the light of Jesus Christ we can’t look at Sean’s suffering and death and reduce it to nothing more than something to weep about thought it’s that. The glory of God was seen here! Mary mourned at the cross of her Son as you and Denise mourn at the death of yours—that makes perfect sense. But there’s more there than something to mourn! I don’t want to suppress your grief. I say that innocent children suffer because humanity turned to moral insanity and God is using them to bring it back to sanity and life.
“Using them sounds like they expendable—used paper plates and plastic forks.”
“No! No! God loves Sean even more than you do. Your son will live again. The entire story about your son will be told, along with the stories of millions of other innocents that have borne the burden of humanity’s guilt. Atheism might offer the view that we’re organisms that just happened to grow like fungus on the face of a tiny planet in the middle of nowhere. Christ knows Sean personally and they have shared some things in common.”
They agreed to meet again.