Christian Lay Theodicy and The Cancer Experience
In philosophy of religion, there are few more frequently visited topics than the problem of evil, which has attracted considerable interest since the time of Epicurus (341-270 BCE). It is well known that the problem of evil involves responding to the apparent tension between 1) belief in the existence of a good, all powerful, all knowing God and 2) the existence of evil—such as personal suffering embodied in the experience of cancer.
While a great deal has been written concerning abstract philosophical theories that academics use to explain the existence of evil, much less has been written about how religious lay people make sense of evil and suffering. What explanations, meanings, and perceptions do they hold concerning the religious significance of evil? What can theologians and philosophers learn from these lay experiences? Our interdisciplinary team designed an experiment to identify the religious significance that personal suffering held for a group of religious cancer sufferers.
We interviewed twenty-nine self-identified evangelical Christians who had received a cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives for our experiment. Since all interviewees identified as Christians, it was expected that they would assent to belief in a theistic God. It was also expected that each interviewee would assent the existence of evil and see their cancer experience as a dramatic and personal instance of an evil event.
The explicit existential threat of cancer guarantees that the individual has much at stake in the experience. Furthermore, the pain and suffering that typically accompanies either the cancer itself or cancer treatments make it a compelling example of evil experienced in a very personal way. Finally, even when successfully treated, the ongoing threat of potentially fatal recurrence looms over the sufferer for years to come.
We asked 17 questions related to the religious significance of their cancer experience in each interview and coded these interviews looking for five distinct types of explanations for/meaning of evil: trusting God in mystery, free will, moral development, spiritual growth, and growth in human relationships/community. These categories were meant to correspond loosely to five philosophical responses to the existence of evil.
Our interviews included several important results. First, 79% of interviewees had at least one answer that fit into the ‘trust God in mystery’ category of responses with 48% using this category of responses as their most frequently cited theme. This result could be interpreted as a kind of generic theodical response: God has a good, but unknown reason for allowing evil/suffering. Alternatively, another possible interpretation is that at least some of these interviewees intuited something similar to skeptical theism, since it claims that if one understands the type of God proposed by theism and possesses an accurate view of human cognitive capacities, it is apparent that there is no real tension to be resolved between theism and the existence of evil. Some of our interviewees seemed to believe not only that the answer to why evil exists is mysterious, but that they simply could not have the necessary perspective to judge what kinds of purposes God might have for allowing this painful episode in their lives.
While it was unsurprising that religious sufferers would find it important to trust God in ambiguous difficult circumstances, more surprisingly, we found that 52% of our respondents did not judge that their cancer experience was at all in tension with their religious beliefs. Whereas a broad range of philosophers and theologians acknowledge that there is at least an apparent conflict between the existence of a good, all-powerful God and the existence of evil, most of our interviewees did not even perceive an apparent tension between theistic beliefs and their painful cancer experiences that would be in need of additional reconciliation.
There are at least two ways this result might be interpreted. First, our interviewees might hold additional beliefs that make the existence of evil easier for them to accept. After all, these interviewees were not ‘bare theists’ who held only to the existence of God, but presumably held a broad range of religious beliefs which may already serve to reconcile the existence of evil: that growing closer to God is more important than earthly life itself, that in evil in this life allows us a greater appreciation of a blessed eternity, or simply that ‘God works for our good in mysterious ways.’ Thus, a fully developed Christian worldview may already accommodate the existence of evil in a way not fully appreciated by philosophers.
Another possible interpretation is that at least some of our interviewees were not adequately reflective to perceive the tension between their religious beliefs and their experience of suffering. There is at least some reason to doubt this explanation as an overarching interpretation of this result since our interviewees were generally well educated with the median participant holding at least a Bachelor’s degree, and most were ongoing participants in a cancer support group ensuring long-term ongoing engagement with their cancer experience.
A final significant finding is that a high portion of our interviewees, 83% reported specific examples of beneficial personal growth—moral, spiritual, or relational— that resulted from their cancer experience. When asked about their cancer experience’s broad effect upon their lives in these areas they volunteered at least one example of a benefit they received in these areas. Depending on one’s accompanying value theory and whether such benefits might have been otherwise achieved, they might provide a morally sufficient reason for the existence of suffering. Our interviewees frequently described experiencing the kind of benefits at the heart of John Hick’s soul making theodicy and Eleonore Stump’s ‘spiritual growth’ theodicy, providing at least some corroborating evidence for such views. Experiences common to our interviewees were similar to what such theodicies would predict.