Counter Intuitive Truths: Easing the Pain When Loved Ones Die

by Steve Williams


December 5, 2016

“Pain,” or “evil” is a tough part of life, but the reason no prominent philosopher defends the logical “problem of pain” any more (ie: that pain proves God doesn’t exist) is that we can’t prove that God couldn’t have purposes for it. Chaos Theory shows how incredibly subtle things can have dramatic and far-reaching ripple effects, and pain in one place could be part of an immense good elsewhere.

This article presumes belief in the God of the Bible.

Without a doubt, one of the most painful (if not THE most painful) things in life is losing a loved one. Even with the confidence that they go straight to heaven, we may still miss them terribly until we are reunited with them. Some people lose their faith over it. This issue is considered to be within what philosophers call the “Problem of Pain (or ‘Problem of Evil’)” category, which generally has two subdivisions; The Emotional Problem of Pain, and The Logical Problem of Pain.

In Jeremiah 17:9 (and other passages), we see that our emotions are potentially deceitful:

“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”

We can all think of examples of people following emotions into negative consequences when they failed to balance them with logical caution. Examples of this include things like “falling in love” at first sight with someone who turns out to be no good, angry outbursts at perceived offenses, impulse purchases, and envy-driven gossip. Emotions are an important part of life, but ideally they should follow the mind rather than lead it.

While the observations in this article may do nothing to immediately alleviate the Emotional Problem of Pain, it’s my hope that it’s helpful in terms of The Logical Problem of Pain, and that the emotions will to some extent eventually follow logic. It seems to me that nobody should lose their faith in God over the existence of pain for the following reasons (a quick summary):

1. Modern Chaos Theory shows that very light and subtle causes can have dramatic effects (like a butterfly’s flapping its wings over Africa being resulting in a hurricane over The Atlantic).
2. Everything is causally interconnected this way, and it’s absolutely possible that an “evil” or “painful” event results in greater “goods” at a later time. We see examples of this in the Bible, such as in Joseph’s life, in Job’s life, and in the life of Jesus.
3. It may very well be possible that it was not feasible for God to accomplish his purposes in a world that lacked pain, given the precedents that both angels and mankind have rebelled against Him to some extent. Although God can do anything that’s logically possible, feasible is not the same thing as possible. It seems that God has multiple purposes in this creation, and if He were to rescind our free will, or jump in to intervene every time there is danger, it would undercut or destroy His purposes in bringing this universe into existence.
4. Philosophers have largely given up on using The Problem of Pain/Evil as evidence against the existence of God, because it has become clear how absolutely impossible it would be to prove that God could not have a morally sufficient reason for allowing (not causing, but allowing) a painful event to occur.
5. If even atheist philosophers (professional thinkers) realize that this is not a good argument against God’s existence, we should give God the “benefit of the doubt” in times of great pain (as Job did) and not lose our faith over it.

Now I realize that this does not take away the pain of losing a loved one and missing them. A good thing to remind ourselves of here is that the place we’re in right now is not heaven. This is the qualifier for heaven. If we drew a line to represent eternity, and it extended off into the distance as far as the eye could see, how big would a comparative representation of this life be on that line? An inch? A centimeter? A millimeter? The Planck length (1/100,000,000,000,000,000,000 of the diameter of a proton)?

Nope — infinitely smaller! In order to even approach the idea of representing the length of this life compared with the length of eternity, the segment representing this life would have to be vanishingly small and eternally shrinking. Again, I don’t say this to in any way minimize the significance of the pain of losing a loved one, but rather to grope at understanding and expressing the incredible scope of eternity in heaven by comparison. I firmly believe that our departed loved ones, along with God, would want us to know that they are OK, and would want us to focus on making sure that we join them, rather than despairing.

The Bible seems to indicate that we’re being “tested” (or prepared) in this life, and that hypothesis has great explanatory power and scope. It seems that there are other purposes as well (including an ultimate triumph over Satan), but I think focusing on the “testing” aspect during times of pain can be somewhat pragmatic. Even if I fail the test and don’t live up to this, the best attitude was summed up by Job “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.” (Job 1: 21). There is peace in recognizing that life and the people in it are a gift, as Job seemed to do. God had no obligation to 1) bring us into existence, or 2) to allow us to have the people we have in our lives for a season, or 3) reunite us all in heaven in eternal glory. When we wipe away our biases and conditioned expectations, all three seem somewhat extravagant, and tend to evoke gratitude.

Training ourselves to lead with our minds rather than our feelings takes time, prayer and self-discipline (and I am by no means finished with this process)! We can do nothing to resurrect the loved one before the appointed time, but focusing on certain merciful truths can be constructive in the interim, when we’re faced with the illusion of their cessation of existence. So much evidence has recently accumulated for a “self” which is brain-independent that even atheists are beginning to write books about it. This data begs the atheist followup questions of where this “self” comes from and where it goes. Believers already know the answer. Think about the existence of the soul and consider these propositions:

1. Before your loved one existed, God foreknew EVERY lovable quirk of her/his personality, and specifically allowed those quirks to come to fruition (Psalm 139, Ephesians 1: 4, 1 Peter 1: 1-2, Romans 8 :29, Acts 17: 26). God’s omniscience includes Foreknowledge (knowledge of what will be) and Middle Knowledge (what would be and could be in any conceivable state of affairs). This in no way militates against our free will, but rather harmonizes with it. The Bible indicates that God either caused or allowed everything that comes into existence, our personalities included. Moreover, we are created in the Image of God (The “Imago Dei”), so it’s reasonable to think that God also cherishes the innocent, accidental quirks of human personality that we treasure. In fact, Christ seemed to confirm this when he said “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” — Matthew 19: 14.

2. God is Lord of (and therefore transcendent to) time, space, matter and energy. Therefore He could restore every aspect of your loved one exactly as he/she was when they passed on if He so chose. In fact, if He wanted to, He could at any point in time negate the event of their passing on entirely, along with any memory of it that you have (somewhat like waking up from a bad dream). He apparently has something even better in mind, however. To paraphrase, the Bible indicates that “everything that doesn’t shine is going to burn”; in other words, the Godly attributes that existed in our loved ones will in no way cease to exist. On the other hand, the “character defects” that we can all do without will no longer exist, because we’ll be in a place that’s devoid of temptation. So when we are reunited with our loved one, it’s reasonable to expect that there will be only positive gain, and no real loss!

3. Jesus indicated more than once that “all which is hidden will be made known” (Matt. 10: 26, Luke 8: 17, 12: 2). I take this to mean that we will come to understand the “goods” that came about from every apparent “evil.” Just as the baby who screams bloody murder at the shock and fear of exiting his mother’s womb at birth later comes to completely disregard it, I think we will do likewise when “all that is hidden is made known.” In the context of eternal bliss in heaven with God and reunited with our loved ones, even the gravest pains of this life will disintegrate into memories unworthy of our focus and attention.

If you are in pain, I pray that God will comfort you with His peace that surpasses understanding (Phil. 4: 6-8) if that’s within His will (1 John 14). Hebrews 11: 1 describes “faith” as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Like a puzzle that is mostly finished, we can discern the grand design in creation by dedicating some time to seeking it. Consistent Bible reading, and study of Apologetics (defense of the faith) are both good investments in understanding the many good reasons we have for hope. Books like What Your Atheist Professor Doesn’t Know (But Should), and a through-the-Bible-in-a-year reading program are good investments of time. They may not only mitigate pain, but even infuse into your heart an indelible hope, not written by the hands of mankind (2 Cor 3).

May the peace of the One who raised Jesus Christ from the dead be upon you!

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About the Author

by Steve Williams

Steve Williams is the author of What Your Atheist Professor Doesn’t know (But Should), and a Reasonable Faith chapter director in Hawaii.