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INTERVIEW #8 – DOUGLAS GROOTHUIS
What happens when God doesn’t intervene? What does the believer do when miracles don’t come? In ch. 13 of The Case for Miracles, Strobel opens with a personal anecdote concerning his wife Leslie who suffers with fibromyalgia. For those who don’t know what fibromyalgia is, it is a debilitating chronic neurobiological condition that can be quite painful. If you know anyone who has the disorder, you know how it can deflate even the strongest of people. For Strobel, who believes so genuinely in the God of miracles, that his wife suffers with this condition is testing. In this chapter, Strobel speaks with philosopher Douglas Groothuis who watched his wife go through serious illness that led to death.
After telling Groothuis’ personal story beginning with the tragic loss of his father when he was only eleven (pp. 237-239), Strobel relates his discussion with the philosopher concerning his dismantling of Hume’s arguments against theism and miracles. “Personally, I find [Hume’s] arguments unconvincing,” he tells Strobel. “His criticisms end up either begging the question or not carefully considering the New Testament evidence” (p. 239). Groothuis finds it completely reasonable to believe in the existence of miracles, including the most important miracle of them all: the resurrection of Jesus (p. 240). But despite the fact that he has no qualm with the existence of miracles, Groothuis was forced to wrestle with what happens when they don’t happen. “And that brought us to Becky,” Strobel writes (p. 240).
Groothuis met Becky when they were both in their twenties, he a campus minister and she a writer and editor. “[S]he was an elegant writer and a sharp editor,” he told Strobel. “[S]he always improved what I wrote” (p. 241). In her thirties, Becky was diagnosed with fibromyalgia which led to forgetfulness and confusion. She would get lost, unable to find her way home from the hair salon. She forgot how to operate a car and later a computer. “We thought that all of this was fibro fog, but it was getting worse,” Groothuis explains (p. 242). Doctors thought it was depression but then diagnosed her with aphasia, a condition in which one loses the ability to find the right word. As Groothuis relates Becky’s story, Strobel senses the weight of it all: “Sadness settled like a dark cloud” (p. 244).
In the midst of this pain, in seeing his wife lose that which was so precious to her, how could he maintain his faith? “I’ve learned to lament,” he tells Strobel, pointing out that laments are a frequent feature of biblical texts. The world, he explains, is broken because of humanity’s sin. And while it is tempting to be angry with God for all the suffering we see and experience, we must keep in mind Jesus, the one who “endured the torture of the crucifixion out of his love” for humanity (p. 247). Jesus “doesn’t just sympathize with us in our suffering; he empathizes with us. Ultimately, I find comfort in that,” Groothuis says (p. 247). Furthermore, what is the alternative to belief? “Atheism,” Groothuis states, “doesn’t give a sufficient answer – under that philosophy the world is meaningless and there’s no purpose for life” (p. 247). Other religious views like Islam offer little help as well due to particular deficiencies. Christianity, then, stands out singularly as possessing a cogent answer to the problem of suffering: “For us, the message is clear: there is a future; there is hope; there is resurrection; there will be a new body in a world without tears” (p. 248). It is Christianity, and Christianity alone, that “has the best explanation for evil and suffering because of the fall of humanity” (p. 248).
As the chapter ends, Groothuis tells Strobel that they key to surviving suffering isn’t to obsess over it but rather to let it go and to trust God with it all. “The best I can do is trust in God’s love and faithfulness – and, as far as I’m able, to smelt meaning out of suffering” (p. 252). His hope is in the notion that God will one day right all the world’s wrongs, a hope as ancient as Christianity itself. So then, though his wife may be struggling daily, he has hope that one day she will be her former self; nay, a glorified self. One day, he believes, all suffering will come to an end.
Christianity and Suffering
The Case for Miracles was published in 2018. Unfortunately, that same year Becky Groothuis passed away. He wrote about her passing on his website, saying,
When I received my contract for the book, I had begun dating Becky Merrill, who joined the same campus ministry with which I was involved, The McKenzie Study Center in Eugene, Oregon. Becky said that she would edit my chapters before I sent them to InterVarsity. I accepted, with more than a literary interest in mind. Although I resisted some of her edits at first, I came to learn that she made my writing and thinking better. She also made my whole life better. We were married in 1984.
Losing a loved one is difficult, and one cannot help but feel for Groothuis. And while I am an atheist who rejects the notion that suffering has any cosmic purpose, I can appreciate that Groothuis’ faith gives him hope both for this life and the next. With that said, there is much in Strobel’s interview with Groothuis that I find problematic.
First, Groothuis asserts that Christianity provides “the best explanation for evil and suffering because of the fall of humanity” (pg. 248). Other philosophies and religion, in his estimation, do not fare well on that count. Atheism, for example, provides an insufficient answer as it entails the world is ultimately meaningless. But it isn’t clear to me why this fact under atheism should make Christianity true. The assumption seems to be that there is meaning to life and therefore Christianity is the best explanation for that meaning. Unfortunately, Groothuis provides Strobel with no defense of that view. Furthermore, his contention that in Islam there is no savior no more demonstrates the falsehood of that religion than the presence of one in Christianity demonstrates the truth of it.
Second, his distinguishing between “meaningless” suffering and “inscrutable” suffering (pg. 248) is little more than semantics. Suffering that has no stated purpose is on a practical level meaningless. Affirming God has some unknown plan doesn’t suddenly confer upon suffering purpose and meaning.
Third, how does Christianity provide the best explanation for pain and suffering? If we suppose that human misery was the product of the fall, should we not inquire as to why the latter entails the former? It could only be because God decreed it to be. So then, why would a good God decree that the incredibly horrendous suffering that exists in the world be the result of the fall of the first humans? Why must everyone suffer because of someone else’s choice? There does not seem to be any justice in that.
Though I cannot help but disagree with Groothuis on a host of issues related to the question of suffering, time does not permit me to do so here. And I surmise that this is also the case with his interview with Strobel. Groothuis’ views are no doubt truncated, abbreviated for the sake of his conversation with Strobel. So he can be forgiven for not providing a more robust defense of suffering and evil in light of Christian theism. But Strobel’s overall project suffers from this general problem: he has not made a case for miracles. He has done little more than provide a very broad and sweeping treatment of the topic that is less than compelling.