Among the toughest questions I have been asked as a pastor is some variation of the following: Why is God allowing this to happen to me? The life situations that prompt this question can range from the relatively insignificant to the profoundly traumatic, but the brute existential fact about life on this planet is that things do not always—or even often—go as we want them to. If God is in control, and God is supposed to be good, why all this misery? Why any misery for that matter?
Christopher Hitchens, the famous atheist author of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, asked similar questions in an essay written after the 2010 death of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—one of the few people to live through the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If ever there was someone who had a right to wonder about the order and goodness of the cosmos it would be Yamaguchi!
According to Hitchens, whatever else might be said about Yamaguchi’s story, it is “one of those cases that demonstrates the absolute uselessness of official piety.” Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism—all are equally worthless in preventing or altering their adherents’ experience in a world full of chaos and pain. Yamaguchi was just the victim of dumb bad luck in world devoid of purpose. There is no God presiding over the cosmos and it is foolishly naive to think so. All religion does is pile illusion upon misery. The only proper response to the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—or any of the horrors of history—is (pardon Hitchens’s indelicate terminology) “WTF?”
What Hitchens seems not to realize is that “WTF?” isn’t all that original a response to the problem of evil. In fact, it’s a downright religious one. It’s even a biblical one. The Psalms of lament frequently express bewilderment, frustration, and anger at the apparent triumph of evil over good.
Psalm 6:1-3, for example, says this:
How long, O LORD Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.
Or how about Psalm 74:9-13?
We are given no miraculous signs;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, O God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Many other examples could be cited within the Psalter alone, to say nothing of books like Job and Lamentations. Hitchens’s protest is neither new nor unique to modern atheism.
While the biblical writers may not phrase things as crudely as Hitchens, the questions they ask are the same: Why don’t the good guys win more often? Why isn’t there a more obvious connection between virtue and blessing? Why is hardship so indiscriminately distributed (a question Hitchens has, tragically, become intimately acquainted with in his ongoing battle with esophageal cancer that began mere months after the publication of this article)? Why doesn’t the state of the world make more moral sense to us? What’s wrong here?
For Hitchens, WTF? is “one of the most pressing, relevant, and ultimately humane” questions we can ask. And indeed, it is. I think the Hebrew poets would agree. I think they would move on, though, to say that it is a question that can only be coherently asked within a worldview where we have good reasons to expect things to be better than they are.