Lament, Grief, and Christian Hope

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I got the unexpected call while driving to work: a friend and former classmate, Harrison, had passed away. As I reeled from the tragic news and its impact not only on me but also on those who knew him, I began to ponder more intensely my own thoughts on life’s hardest moments, the ones that dare to crush us. For the first time in years, finding an adequate response to hardship became nearly impossible. As someone who prides himself on being able to handle pain, I felt confused and even resentful, a reaction worth reflecting on. A few points of emphasis will be explored below with a desire to help others navigate the journey through significant pain and loss.

The Ultimate Inadequacy of Theodicy

After taking a course on the problem of evil last year, I felt confident in my ability to provide what’s called a “theodicy,”[1] a potential reason why God would allow evil in the world.[2] I was comfortable in my ability to engage with the problem of evil on a philosophical basis. Indeed, considering various theodicy proposals not only had been beneficial on an intellectual level but also provided comfort when I would encounter minor trials or setbacks. Surely, God was allowing these things to happen for justified reasons. Perhaps God was using these challenges to make me a better person, refine my soul,[3] or maybe I was supposed to learn a lesson that I could learn no other way. As long as nothing too bad occurred in my life, I was satisfied in not fully grasping God’s reasons.

But I ran into a problem when reflecting on Harrison’s passing: none of my theodicy musings were making much of a difference to alleviate my grief. My inability to think of a justification for God to allow such a tragedy only intensified the sting of the loss.

Interestingly, I’m not the first to realize the failure of theodicy to address significant evil. Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff goes to great lengths in his book Lament For A Son to explain why, when his 25-year old son lost his life in a rock-climbing accident, theodicy proposals by loved ones only made the tragedy more unbearable.[4] Upon the passing of his wife, C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, where he attempts to grapple with this searing loss. He agonizes while speaking of God’s presence, “Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in our time of trouble?”[5] When it comes to those in his life who try to use religion to comfort him or to attempt to justify his wife’s death, he bluntly retorts, “But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”[6] It’s hard not to empathize with Lewis’s sentiment. When dealing with grief, we must look beyond speculative theodicies towards something – or Someone – better.

When dealing with grief, we must look beyond speculative theodicies towards something – or Someone – better.

Finding Genuine Hope in Christ

We need more than an intellectual theory. We need to look to the life of Christ. In Christ we find a God who willingly suffered and died on humanity’s behalf. Christ’s death demonstrated that suffering has a profound and meaningful purpose. And his resurrection conquered death![7] From this, two additional conclusions follow:

  1. Death has a defeater.
  2. Death isn’t the end.

These realities, while not making the pain of suffering any less painful, certainly offer a powerful ray of genuine hope. I specify “genuine” because this version of hope is vastly different from general hope. We all have general hope. This version of hope is the kind of hope that we utilize in our everyday lives in areas such as hope for the future, hoping to get a job, make friends, get married, etc. In this respect, general hope isn’t guaranteed. Things could go either way, depending on the situation in question.

On the contrary, the genuine hope of Christ is guaranteed, which, in light of the two conclusions about death listed above, is precisely the reason why Paul could say to the early church in Thessalonica “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).[8]

As others do who have no hope. Let those words sink in. You see, as Christians we do grieve. We are not immune. The sting of death is profoundly real, and, though Christ conquered death, this does not mean that suffering is non-existent. However, because of what Christ has accomplished, Christians can have what Joshua Chatraw calls “hopeful confidence,”[9] or genuine hope, in the face of death.

Longing For Heaven

I want to implore you to do one thing: long for heaven with eager anticipation. It’s often easy to be fixated on this life. I, like all of us, am especially guilty of doing this. However, as I’ve been contemplating Harrison’s passing, my perspective has been forced to change. While we all have a divine purpose here on earth to glorify Christ and share His love with everyone, this fallen world is not our home; heaven is. Returning to C. S. Lewis, he once said “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”[10] Harrison certainly aimed at Heaven. May we all strive and pray to do this as well.

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[1]  Greg Welty, Why Is There Evil In the World (And So Much Of It)? (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications), 41-43

[2] A comprehensive overview of several interesting theodicy proposals, (some more plausible and biblically faithful than others) and criticisms of them, can be found here: Michael L. Peterson Ed. The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings. 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

[3] Otherwise known as the “soul-building” theodicy, as popularized by John Hick. See John Hick, Evil and the Love of God (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2010), 253-336.

[4] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

[5] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, (New York: HarperOne, 1961), 18.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] Academic defenses of the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection can be found here: Gary R. Habermas, On the Resurrection: Evidences. Vol. 1. (Brentwood: B&H Academic, 2024); William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Third Ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 333-400.

[8] For those interested, helpful commentaries on this passage can be found here: G.K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd, The Story Retold: A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020), 334-335; Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, The Cross, And The Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Second Ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic: 2016), 508, 510, 526-527, 529-530, 533, 536, 1007.

[9] Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2020), 8.

[10] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1952), 134.

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MA Ethics, Theology, and Culture

The Master of Arts Ethics, Theology, and Culture is a Seminary program providing specialized academic training that prepares men and women to impact the culture for Christ through prophetic moral witness, training in cultural engagement, and service in a variety of settings.

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Eli Kunkel

Eli Kunkel

Eli Kunkel (BS, College of Education, North Carolina State University) is currently pursuing MA degrees in both Christian Education and Christian Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition, he teaches middle & high school courses in Apologetics, Cultural Engagement, and Competing Worldviews at Bethesda Christian Academy, in Durham, NC.

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