As any apologist worth his/her salt will tell you, the great objection to the proposition that God exists is the fact of innocent suffering. If you want a particularly vivid presentation of this complaint, go on YouTube and look up Stephen Fry’s disquisition on why he doesn’t believe in God. (Then right afterward, please, do look at my answer to Fry). But the anguished question of an army of non-believers remains: how could an all-loving and all-powerful God possibly allow the horrific suffering endured by those who simply don’t deserve it? Say all you want, these critics hold, about God’s plan and good coming from evil, but the disproportion between evil and the benefits that might flow from it simply rules out the plausibility of religious faith. The skilled and experienced apologist will also tell you that, in the face of this problem, there is no single, unequivocal “answer,” no clinching argument that will leave the doubter stunned into acquiescence. The best approach is to walk slowly around the issue, in the manner of the phenomenologists, illuminating now this aspect, now that.
It is precisely this method that is on display in the surprisingly thoughtful and affecting film Miracles from Heaven. The true story revolves around the devout Beam family from Burleson, Texas: Christy, Kevin, and their three daughters. At the age of 10, their middle child, Annabelle, develops a devastating disease whereby her intestines are no longer able to process food. After consulting local physicians and surgeons to no avail, Christy and her mother make their way to Boston to see a nationally renowned children’s doctor. But after many more months of treatment, her condition remains grave. During this horrific ordeal, Christy’s faith in God is seriously shaken, since her ardent prayers have remained, it appears, unanswered. In fact, she explicitly voices to her pastor the confounding puzzle referenced above: how can a loving God permit this innocent and God-fearing child to suffer?
When it seems that things cannot get any worse, Annabelle suffers a freak accident, falling headlong down the trunk of a hollowed-out tree. When she comes around after being unconscious for many hours, she is, against all expectations, cured. Unable to account for the sudden improvement, the Boston specialist declares that she is in “complete remission,” just the medical way, he says, of explaining what cannot be explained. Annabelle herself, however, tells of an out of the body experience, a journey to heaven, and God’s assurance that she would be fine.
I would like simply to explore a few of the aspects of the problem of suffering – theodicy, to give it its formal title – that are illuminated in the course of this film. First, miracles are rare. As the etymology of the word itself suggests – mirari (to be amazed) – miracles don’t happen everyday, for if they did, we wouldn’t “wonder” at or be amazed by them. Indeed, Annabelle’s hospital roommate, a little girl suffering from cancer and deeply loved by her father, does not receive a miracle. So we shouldn’t expect God to intervene anytime someone experiences pain or tragedy.
Secondly, God customarily delights in working through secondary causes. To give just one example from the film, the Boston specialist, Dr. Nurko, is portrayed as a man who is not only medically skilled, but profoundly compassionate as well. The incomparable good that he does for dozens of children should be construed as an expression of God’s loving care, as the vehicle through which God operates. Why would God not act directly? Thomas Aquinas answered that the supreme cause is pleased to involve us in his causality, giving us, as it were, the joy and privilege of sharing his work.
A third lesson is that believers in the God of the Bible should not expect that they will be free of pain, just the contrary. It is actually a bit of a puzzle that so many readers of the Bible seem to think that the love of God is incompatible with suffering, when every major figure in the Scriptures – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Peter, James, and John – goes through periods of enormous suffering. And this puzzlement only deepens when we recall that the central person in the Bible is typically displayed to us nailed to a cross and in the throes of death. What becomes clear in the course of Miracles from Heaven is that the agony of the Beam family is not meaningless, but rather a participation in the salvific agony of Christ.
A fourth and final insight is that suffering tends to give rise to love. Frequently throughout the film, people perform acts of kindness toward Annabelle and her family, precisely because the girl’s ordeal has awakened compassion in them. In a word, the girl’s pain had a saving effect on those around her; she was, to use the language of the Bible, suffering on their behalf (Col 1:24). As Charles Williams pointed out, coinherence – being with and for others – is the master dynamic of the Christian life. Our triumphs and joys are never utterly our own; they are for the sake of others. And the same is true of our tragedies.
Does this film “solve” the problem of innocent suffering? Obviously not. But does it shed light in a creative way on key aspects of it? Yes indeed.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.