On October 7, 2005, I interviewed John Piper for an hour about the sovereignty of God and the problem(s) of suffering and evil. (It was printed in the book Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, pp. 219-241.)
I read for him the famous section from chapter 4 of The Brothers Karamazov from Ivan to Aloysha, including this horrifying paragraph:
There was a little girl of five who was hated by her mother and father. . . . This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy [outhouse], and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!
Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark in the cold and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?
I asked Piper for his answer to the question, “Where was God?”
The question where is metaphorical and hardly has an answer. “On the throne of the universe preparing a place for the little girl in heaven that will recompense her ten-thousand-fold for everything she is experiencing.” “Preparing hell for her parents so that justice will be done perfectly.” And those who look upon both the heaven recompense and the hell recompense will bow in sovereign wonder at the justice of God. Those are possible answers to where he is.
Later in his answer he offered one of the reasons such horrors are allowed to exist in the physical and moral realms: “to display the outrage of sin—the outrage of sin against the holy God.” This is not the only thing that could and should be said, but it’s an important and neglected aspect of the answer:
Let me see if I can help you feel what I’m saying here. When Adam and Eve fell by rebelling against God, God subjected the entire universe to corruption. You might say that’s an overreaction. Well, if you bring your brain to the Bible and shape the Bible by your brain, that’s what you’re going to say. But if you let the Bible describe what’s happening and shape your brain by the Bible, the conclusion you should draw is that sin is unfathomably outrageous. To turn your back on the living Creator God and prefer an apple to him is the ultimate outrage.It is infinitely outrageous. It deserves infinite punishment. And what God does in bringing the whole universe into subjection to futility—Romans 8:20—is to create a horrid parable of the outrage of moral evil. So that everywhere I look when I see outrageous physical evil—suffering—I want my response to be, “Oh how infinitely outrageous and repugnant is sin against the holy God.” So I understand all the physical horrors of the world as symbolic of the horrors of the moral reality of sin against God.
Let me go a little step further. When Jesus died on the cross, you can come at that in one of two ways. You can say that not only was there Adam and Eve’s sin, which was so evil it brought down the entire universe, but there have been in every one of us ten thousand of those sins. And multiply that by the number of people who have lived on the earth, or just take the church and multiply our sins—each one of which is no less grievous than choosing an apple over God—and therefore every sin that is committed should bring down the whole universe on our heads with physical horrors like this. And Jesus Christ hung on the cross and displayed the infinite value of God’s worthiness to be treasured, not traded away. And now, stand and wonder at the value of the Son of God, that his suffering could match all of those universe-crushing sins for which he died. Or you could come at it from the side of Christ and see how gloriously supreme he is and how infinitely valuable he is, and then draw the conclusion about how terrible sin is.
What I’m saying in addition to those preliminary things is that every time we see something horrific, some horrible accident, our thoughts should be about the outrage of sin, not the injustice of God. These stories I’ve heard about people backing over their own children with their car. What would that mean? How would that feel—that bump, and you get out, and everything in you would scream. I knelt beside a man and put my arm around him about three weeks ago whose little girl was in the middle of Eleventh Avenue with a blue tarp over her. She had just walked across the road behind her dad. Hit. Got killed instantly right down the street from our house. And he just sat there staring at her. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to,” he said.
So we’ve all tasted this. And when we see the horrific things that happen in the world, what should we feel?
I think instead of calling God into question, we should see them as evidences in our lives of the outrage of our sin and the horrific evil and repugnance of sin to a holy God. And God is displaying to us the outrage of our sin in the only way that we can see it, because we don’t get upset about our sinning. We only get upset about the hurt. How many of you lose sleep—well, some of you are good saints and you do—over your own fallenness? Most of us get bent out of shape about things that hurt our bodies, but it’s our sins that are the ultimate outrage.
So I think the kind of repugnance Dostoevsky is talking about is a display of how horrifically terrible our own sin is. And then Christ arrives, bears all that outrage, and by his own suffering undoes suffering. I want to summon people to Christ as the final solution to that problem.