NEW ORLEANS (BP)–What is God’s answer to suffering? The resurrection of Jesus is God’s answer, Gary Habermas said.
Habermas, chairman of the department of theology and philosophy and distinguished professor of apologetics and philosophy at Liberty University, discussed the issue of suffering in a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary chapel service March 10 prior to NOBTS’ inaugural Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum March 11-12.
Himself a doubter of the Christian faith earlier in life, Habermas described himself as sensitive to skeptics and doubters, often engaging in dialogue to help them believe. Habermas has formed a friendship, for example, with noted British atheist Anthony Flew, whom he has debated numerous times –- a friendship that played a key role in Flew’s recent move toward a belief in God.
Habermas cited the resurrection as having rescued him from the depths of doubt. His conclusions about the resurrection earlier in his life were reaffirmed during a crisis in his family –- the death of his wife Debbie.
Most people doubt for emotional reasons rather than factual reasons, which holds true for Christians as well as non-Christians suffering from doubt, Habermas said.
“How do you handle the worst upsets in life?” he asked. “What do you do when the worst possible thing comes upon you? Having the right theory is necessary but it is not sufficient.”
In 1995, Debbie Habermas had been sick for months with flu-like symptoms when things took a dramatic turn for the worse. While he was away on a speaking engagement, Habermas received a call from her saying she was to undergo a series of tests as soon as he returned.
“From that point on … I began measuring my life in a serious of shocks,” Habermas said.
His wife endured numerous tests, hospital visits and a misdiagnosis. First, doctors thought she was suffering from ovarian cancer. When it came time to operate, doctors discovered her condition was worse than they initially had thought. She had inoperable stomach cancer, and Debbie was only given a few months to live.
At this point in his message, Habermas referred the chapel audience to the Book of Job. For the next few minutes, he guided the crowd through a survey of the book, bringing out Job’s increasing questioning of God. He noted that many Christians read selectively from Job, rarely reading between chapters 3 and 38.
“At the end of chapter 1 and in the middle of chapter 2, we are told that Job did not sin,” Hambermas noted. “We jump from there to chapter 38, wondering why God is so upset with Job. After all, he didn’t sin.”
Between chapters 3 and 38, Job struggles with his circumstances and his relationship with God. Habermas said Job’s chief complaint comes in 10:18-20, when he asked God to leave him alone.
“Job is saying to the God of the universe: ‘Get out of my face and give me a break,’” Habermas said. “How far had Job fallen or how twisted was his thought process that he would say, ‘Get out of my face,’ to God?”
Habermas said it is surprising that Job would take comfort from the thought of God leaving him alone. But Job does not stop there. Later, Job seeks to debate the God of the universe.
Later in the book, Job begins to experience the silence of God. Despite Job’s calls for help, God is silent. Habermas commented that many people today also complain about God’s silence in the face of their suffering.
Finally in chapter 38, Job hears from God and comes to the answer that satisfies his questions of why — through a series of pointed questions from God.
“God said, ‘I want to ask you a question,’” Habermas said. “‘Where were you when I created the world?’”
Job had no answer for the questions God asked. Though Job is not told why he suffered, Habermas said, Job comes to a realization that he can trust God.
Job probably lived during the time of the Patriarchs and did not have the Bible to read, Habermas said. While he did not have access to all that Christians today know about God, Habermas said, “Job realized he knew enough about God to trust Him with those things he didn’t know.”
Habermas returned to the story of his wife’s bout with cancer. For a four-month period, he cared for Debbie constantly. He fed her through tubes and cared for their children and the house. Debbie slept as much as 18 hours a day. Habermas feared the doubts that he encountered earlier in life would return. They did not.
During the afternoons, Habermas would sit on the porch and pray to God, seeking answers.
“I did want to know, ‘Why is Debbie upstairs dying at age 43?’” he recounted. “I had my own Job chapter 38.”
Habermas said it is common for Christians who are suffering to experience a time of questioning. Christians seldom discover why they are suffering but he said God gives the answers that are needed.
The answer God used to help Habermas came in the form of a question. “Did I raise My Son from the dead?”
“My students know that is the answer to every question you can possibly ask,” Habermas said. “That [question] rescued me from my doubts. It is the center of theology. It is the center of practice.”
The question kept coming up throughout Habermas’ struggle: “Did I raise My Son from the dead?” Of course, his answer was “Yes.” Habermas already had written 13 books about the resurrection –- he believed it with all his heart.
“God never promised to take us from situations,” Habermas said. “God promises not to take us from an incident but to hold our hand through the incident.
“The resurrection is God’s answer to suffering,” he said. “Job’s answer really works and it goes like this, ‘I know enough about God to trust Him in those things I don’t know.’”
God did not remove Jesus from the cross during His intense suffering, and Christians should not expect better than what the Son of God received, Habermas said.
The fact that God raised Jesus from the dead provides an answer even when a person does not understand the suffering, he said. The resurrection is God’s answer to suffering because it is an historical fact, he continued, pointing to the Apostle Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15 as “the best evidence anywhere [for the resurrection]. Even critics allow this data as authentic.”
Debbie Habermas lost her battle with stomach cancer on Aug. 9, 1995. The fact of the resurrection helped Habermas and his children through the difficult time. Because of the resurrection, they knew they would see Debbie again one day.
The words Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 were a great help to Habermas. Paul said that Christians grieve, but they do not grieve without hope.
“We grieve with hope, because we will be with our loved ones forever,” Habermas said. “Again, we are back to Job’s answer. I may not know the ins and outs, but I know the God who does.”
Habermas finished his remarks by reading Jesus’ words from John 14:19: “Because I live, you shall live also.”