December is sometimes a bitter-sweet month when the festive fun jars with tragic events we see in the news and experience in our own lives. When I was a child several children died in a house fire in my home town shortly before Christmas.
During this festive lead-up we have been confronted with two tragic stories, that of young Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and little Star Hobson, two young children wickedly neglected and murdered by those who should have loved them.
These twin tragedies may have raised questions for people with a Christian faith. I have written some brief thoughts from a Christian perspective that might be of help.
1. These murders are horrific
Many in our culture have tried to teach us over the past fifty years that there is no such thing as right or wrong really. They have told us that morality is just something we have created, or has ‘evolved’
This is clearly nonsense. The newspapers have called Arthur’s killers “evil”, and everyone knows that is correct because God has imprinted a sense of right and wrong into our souls.
Further, the Bible tells us God is deeply pained himself by human suffering and sin (which is rebellion against him). It grieves him (for example, see Jeremiah 14:17)
And Christians do not float above suffering. Rather, Christians willingly enter into other people’s suffering, drawn to love and care for those who suffer because God has suffered for us, to pay the penalty our sin deserves.
At Christmas we remember that God himself took on human flesh, Jesus Christ. And Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend (John 11:35). The shocking thing is perhaps that Jesus says we are all evil (Luke 11:13).
2. God cares for the weak and vulnerable (like children)
There’s a picture circling on social media where Jesus is pictured cradling Star and Arthur.
Sometimes these kinds of images have little to do with real Christianity.
However, the Bible tells us God does have a special concern for those who are abused or neglected by those who are more powerful. The Old Testament prophets spoke out powerfully against this kind of injustice.
And we of course see this heart of God revealed in Jesus.
In Jesus’ day, children were not considered to be very important. On one occasion Jesus’ disciples tried to send parents with little children away, assuming Jesus wouldn't be interested in them. But Jesus rebuked his disciples and said “let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14)
3. God wants us to tell him how we feel
A Facebook group was created by people who felt an overwhelming sense of grief over little Arthur, a place where people could share their feelings and get some support.
When tragic things affect us deeply we instinctively look for someone who can help us. There may not be anything that person can do about what has happened, but just being able to speak to someone about it helps.
The Bible shows us that God wants to hear us talk to him about our feelings, even if we come close to telling God that things don’t seem fair. Telling God our feelings is not sinful (see for example Job’s experience, Job 7:20).
4. There will be a day of ultimate justice
There was a general public approval when it was reported that Boris Johnson would aim to bring in an ‘Arthur’s law’ to ensure child murderers ‘die behind bars’.
The Bible tells us that justice will be done on a grand, universal scale by God, the only person capable of such a perfect judgement (Genesis 18:25).
Christians are often mocked for our insistence that there will be a ‘judgement day’. Yet, as Arthur and Star’s awful stories show us, we all long for true justice to be done.
If there is no final moment of God’s justice, then there can ultimately be no real justice. A life behind bars does not make up for murdering a child.
5. God is able to make bad things come undone
Some of our human anguish over the evil act of murdering a defenceless, powerless child comes from the sense that the terrible things can’t be undone. Arthur and Star can’t be brought back to us.
This is deeply troubling. On social media some people have even expressed painful regret that they weren’t there to stop the abuse themselves - as if they could have.
But Christianity tells us that our longing for the bad things to come undone is not ridiculous. God is more than powerful enough to do that. He did, after all, create the whole universe out of nothing. The Bible tells us there will be a day when God will “wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4)
It’s hard to get our heads around, but perhaps it is like the experience of waking from a nightmare. For a few moments after waking the nightmare seems so terribly real. But within a few minutes what had terrified us seems very faint. A few hours later we can barely remember the details of the bad dream at all.
6. God can have a reason for allowing bad things to happen
It is common for people to say to us ‘if there is a God, why would he let such terrible things happen?’
We may well wonder about it ourselves.
There is no doubt this is a hard question. But saying there can’t be a God because suffering exists doesn’t really solve any problems.
We have to ask “If there isn’t a God, then what is suffering?” Suffering becomes meaningless.
And if there is no God, then nothing can ultimately be done about suffering. Suffering will never be put right.
We have to remember that the Bible itself wrestles with the question of why bad things happen in the world in a way that seems unfair:
“You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1)
God is great enough and powerful enough to take even the most severe and wicked suffering and turn it for good. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
7. God knows what it’s like to suffer
People were attracted to the Facebook group group for people affected by Arthur’s murder because they wanted to find other people who felt the way they did - a strange sense of deep sorrow for a little boy they had never met.
We long to know that someone else understands us. To be all alone with our terrible feelings is an awful experience. It’s enough to send us crazy.
If the God who exists was like that - far away from us and unable to relate to our deepest most painful experiences - then we wouldn’t feel like such a God was of any use to us. Though he might know all about us, he wouldn’t know us.
Christianity of course says that the real God who is actually there does know all about our emotional pain. He knows it because he has experienced the pain of rejection himself, when Jesus the Son of God was brutally murdered by humans he had created, and had come to rescue in his great love.
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not welcome him.” (John 1:11)
These are just some initial thoughts. At the time of writing news broke of four young boys have been reported to have died in a house fire in south London, which is suspected to be deliberate. More tragedy. I hope they are of some help. If you have questions about God and the existence of pain and suffering, please get in touch with us at Grace Church Wakefield.