The biggest challenge to belief in God is the problems of evil and pain. How could a loving God allow my loved one to die? Why would he allow me to suffer through a divorce? How can he be good and let me go through all this pain? I want to share a thought experiment that tries to answer these challenges to belief. It is a modified version of the Free Will Defense (FWD). In the FWD, free will is used to explain evil’s existence. Let’s call my modified version the Love Defense.
My family and I have been grieving the death of our beloved dog, Bear. We loved Bear, and he loved us. Philosophers are sticklers for definitions, so here is my definition of love: shared affection displayed in acts of goodness. Bear loved us by following us everywhere and cuddling; he would also break up arguments between the kids or Amy and me by getting close and barking at us until we stopped. We loved him by long walks and lots of petting; we fed him and gave him a comfy place to sleep. It is hard to overestimate our love for Bear and his love for us.
Then one day, he was gone.
Our home is absent. He is missing. We wept when he died. Some of us wailed. His love meant something; it added delightful texture and joyous substance to our lives. In his absence, we feel pain. It is this relational absence I want to explore.
Relational absence is marked by a long-term, often permanent, separation of persons who love each other (or did love each other at one time).
In human relationships, there are many reasons that we experience absence from the ones we love. It can be for awful reasons: death, divorce, sickness, estrangement, or anger (to name a few). There are also benign reasons for an absence: new job, busyness, etc. This is to say that relational absence or its possibility, even though painful, is not necessarily sinful or evil.
If your adult child moves to the other side of the world away from you, there will be a relational absence. There is no sin in it, but if the move is permanent, there is loss and probably grief. A mother can be excited for her child, understand that this is an excellent move to make, and still, most moms will have a broken heart. For sure, the child’s parents will experience loss.
I cannot imagine that love is possible without the possibility of absence. I love my wife, and someday one of us will die. Whoever is left will grieve precisely because of the lack of the departed one. Even Jesus mourned the absence of his Father. The shared love between the Father and the Son was the reason for His grief on the cross—my God, my God, why did you forsake me?
Love is only possible because the absence of a loved one is always a possibility. The two are inseparable. This is true even in a sinless world.
I find it telling that sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-8). In the garden after the first sin, separation is the consequence. Intertwined with perfect love is the possibility of grief. This separation—sin!—even grieved God (Psalm 78:40). Where there is love, absence is a possibility. Grief will always be possible where there is love.
This universe was made for love. This means that the possibility of grief and pain are inherent in it. So, why is there suffering, pain, and grief in our lives? Love demands it.