Hold Fast: Seeing the Unseen in Suffering

In the heyday of his atheism, British atheist-turned-deist and philosopher of religion Antony Flew embellished a parable known as "The Invisible Gardener." In the parable, two explorers walk through a jungle and come upon a beautifully manicured garden. One explorer is convinced that the garden demonstrates that there must be a gardener. The other explorer is skeptical. So, they wait and wait and no gardener appears. But the first explorer remains convinced that there must be a gardener while the other explorer remains skeptical. The first explorer surmises that the gardener must be invisible. So, they place electric wire around the garden, and bring in bloodhounds so that the gardener, even if invisible, might be detected. But still, no gardener. The first explorer still believes. He says to his companion that the gardener must not only be invisible, but he must be intangible, undetectable, coming only rarely, and secretly, to tend the garden. The second explorer, frustrated by his friend's stubbornness, finally asked, "What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, undetectable gardener and no gardener at all?"

       The point Flew was attempting to make was evidentialist. He was trying to show that Christians will stubbornly maintain their beliefs when confronted with a lack of evidence, or even of contrary evidence. Flew objected that the Christian God "dies the death of a thousand qualifications"[1] in the face of demands for evidence of his existence—just like the gardener in the parable. Christians, Flew suggests, will maintain a belief in God's existence even though there is no circumstance or evidence that points to that existence.

       Not only is there no evidence for Christianity, according to Flew, but there is strong evidence against Christianity, evidence that argues in favor of what he called "the presumption of atheism." Here is what Flew says after the parable:

Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying. His Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made. Just what would have to happen to entitle us to say 'God does not love us' or even 'God does not exist'? What would have to occur to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?[2]

       Flew's conclusion is characteristic of what has been called "the problem of evil." Simply put, the problem pits the infinite goodness of God against the vast magnitude of evil in the world and asks how the two can co-exist. In an "evidential universe” like Flew's, all signs point to the magnitude of evil; no signs point to an infinitely good God. To think and live consistently, in this world, is to recognize the suffering and pain that surrounds and smothers us, and give up on the notion of God. This problem of evil has been called the Achilles Heel of Christianity; the one issue, some think, that brings Christianity’s house of cards tumbling down. The problem of evil is an apologetic challenge for Christians.

       My suspicion is that most Christians have had occasions in their lives when the problems addressed by Flew ring true to us. Perhaps they can even, at times, ring "truer" than our belief in an invisible and intangible God. I suspect that there are times in our Christian lives when we become evidentialists like Flew. We look around us, we see so much suffering and pain in the world, we even experience those things ourselves, perhaps in an overwhelming way, and we wonder, deep down, whether our invisible God is actually real. "Surely," we might think to ourselves, "if God is good and is my God, He would not allow such things to happen. Surely, there must be a better way."

Seeing the Unseen

       Did the year 2020 test your faith in Christ? Has worldwide suffering and irrefutable evidence of substantial human pain across the entire globe made Flew's objections a little more sympathetic? In suffering, our spiritual eyes tend to develop cataract, and all we can see is what is directly in front of our face. It’s easy then to be tempted toward Flew's evidentialism.

       So, it is no coincidence that one of the foundational passages on apologetics in the New Testament was delivered in a context of suffering. When the apostle Peter wrote his first epistle, its original recipients were struggling in deep waters of suffering. Peter recognized that the "elect exiles of the Dispersion" (1:1), had been "grieved by various trials," even if "for a little while" (1:6). Some of them were "suffering unjustly" (2:18) and may have been beaten for their faith (2:20). In the midst of all of this, Peter urged them not to be "surprised at the fiery trial" when it came to them (4:12).

       As Peter writes to encourage these Christians who are facing intense suffering, he also gives them specific instructions on how to prepare themselves to defend their faith:

...but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; (1 Peter 3:15, NASB)

That phrase, "make a defense" is translated from the Greek word, apologia. Peter is instructing his readers on how to do apologetics, especially in the midst of deep pain and suffering.

       The first thing we see in this verse is the command to "sanctify” or set apart “Christ as Lord" in our hearts. It’s important to recognize that this command requires us to abandon any temptation toward Flew's evidentialism, and instead to shift our focus upward, where Christ is, and, in the recesses of our hearts, to see Him there.

       Surely evidentialism would have been tempting for Peter's audience. If their focus was on their own circumstances, not only would they see their own suffering, but others who had given their lives to Christ persecuted and giving their lives for Christ. They would see the perpetuation of injustice and cruelty toward those who would not bow the knee to the Emperor. Where is the evidence of God's goodness, when everything around points to the almost overwhelming presence of suffering and evil?

       Peter's initial answer to this question is first to ensure, in our hearts, that Christ is Lord. When we do that, we see His Lordship above everything else. But how can this help us in suffering? In at least two ways:

       First, to ensure the Lordship of Christ in our hearts requires more than cursory affirmation. It requires a whole-souled commitment. If we have nothing to focus on but suffering it can render us blind to its purposes. If we have prepared our hearts in the proper way, we are not surprised by our suffering (4:12), but we see it in light of the sovereignty of our Savior. With Christ set apart as Lord in our hearts, we see Him first, and everything else in light of His loving reign over us.

       The Lordship of Christ, as Peter made clear in his sermon on the first Pentecost, is a fulfillment of Psalm 110. It means that Christ now sits at the right hand of His Father, to reign and to rule, as all of His enemies are being made a footstool for His feet. That is, Jesus now reigns and is in the process of defeating every enemy that would seek to thwart His purposes. One of those enemies is death, and the suffering that leads to it. This last enemy will one day be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26), as will all the suffering that leads to death.

       When the Lordship of Christ reigns, not simply on our lips but in our hearts, then the evidentialism of Flew loses its glow. As the hymn writer says, "The things of earth will grow strangely dim." Those things grow strangely dim because, even though they are right before our very eyes, we begin to see through them, as if transparent, and we see in them the Lordship of our Savior.

       Our daily headlines and notifications continually threaten this vision. They call you to turn your eyes to the next "breaking news." They encourage you to wring your hands, to worry and fret, to pretend that the only solution to the day's chaos is the next politician or policy. But this is irrational and absurd from a scriptural point of view. In fact, it is equivalent to the evidentialism of Flew, highlighting only the problems, and settling only for skepticism.

       Has the visible world seemed chaotic to you this past year? Have suffering and hardship and chaos and uncertainty overwhelmed you, day after day and month after month? If so, then turn your eyes upon Jesus our Lord. As the author to the Hebrews puts it, "At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him." Even so, he immediately adds, "But we see him..., " (Heb. 2:8, emphasis mine). Everything that has happened, and that will happen, passes through the loving banner of His cosmic reign. Though the details of His victory might be hidden from us at present, that He will conquer all of His enemies is more certain than anything we see around us. He is Lord—our Lord—and we are His.

“Everything that has happened, and that will happen, passes through the loving banner of His cosmic reign.”

Seeing the Suffering Servant

       There is a second way that Christ's Lordship addresses our present suffering, a way that fundamentally changes our perspective.

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (1 Peter 2:21-24)

       Why would Peter expect that we should not be surprised by our suffering and the suffering around us? As followers of Christ, we have been called to suffer (see Phil. 1:29), but this is only part of the truth. As followers of Christ, we have been called to suffer even as Christ, our Savior and Lord, has suffered. One of the things we see clearly when we set Christ apart as Lord in our hearts is that His Lordship came at the highest possible cost. He is Lord because of His suffering and humiliation. So, our suffering is not, in the first place, a hardship, or a travesty of justice, or an occasion for grief. Our suffering is, in the first place, a calling to follow our Savior.

       So intense was Christ's suffering that He Himself prayed at Gethsemane, in effect, "Surely, if God is good and is my Father, He would not allow such things to happen. Surely, there must be a better way." Nevertheless, He concluded, "Yet not as I will, but as You will," (see Matt. 26:36-44).

       With this in mind, our perspective, and thus our defense of Christianity in the face of suffering, becomes clear. The problem with Flew's evidentialism is not, in the end, the evidence. There is evidence all around us of God's grace and mercy (see Rom. 1:18-20). The problem with Flew's evidentialism is that his selection of the evidence was way too narrow. There was much more for him to see than the suffering around him.

       Remember Flew's objection that “His Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern.” Here’s clear evidence of the tragedy of Flew's evidential objections: Is there really "No obvious sign of concern?" from the Father? What else is the utterly unjust suffering and death of God's own Son if not the climactic and cosmic evidence of our heavenly Father's concern for us through all of our suffering and pain? Could there be any clearer evidence of our heavenly Father's concern than this?

       The tragedies around us, the suffering we endure, the chaos that sin produces in the world—all of them are enemies of our Father. They are, right now, ordained as a demonstration of our Lord's love for us. He is working even now to defeat them all, and to make them a footstool for His feet.

       But it’s not enough simply to admit there’s a God. Even Antony Flew, after decades of arguing for atheism, changed his mind in 2004, and claimed to believe in something close to Aristotle's view of a god. He had decided that the evidence did point to something, somewhere, bigger than the universe. But he continued to reject the evidence of God’s love in his adamant refusal to believe in Christianity. Unfortunately, his turn to theism was no more help to him than his atheism. Both views reject the true God.

       In the meantime, we follow our Savior. "While suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously," (1 Peter 2:23). With this Savior set apart as Lord in our hearts, we see Him, and we prepare ourselves to give an answer to all who ask us about the hope that we have in Christ. Then we can see suffering and pain as guided by our heavenly Father who, because He loves His Son who suffered, loves those who are united to Him in and through their suffering as well.

When you suffer, when others express their dismay at the suffering and pain around us, remember Peter’s words: "Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts."


[1] Antony Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” in Antony Flew and Alasdair C. MacIntyre, New Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York, New York: Macmillan, 1964), 99.

[2] Ibid. 98–99.

Rev. Dr. K. Scott Oliphint (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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