What about Josef Fritzl?
That question, or one similar, is where I always seem to end up. No matter what subject the conversation started on, every Alpha small group I've led and every 'God' conversation I've had with my university friends has always arrived at the problem of evil and the trump card of the most horrific example imaginable.
I've always struggled to come up with an answer, largely because I haven't believed my own arguments.
I know the Christian creation story teaches that God created a perfect world and then humans bought evil, sin and suffering into the world through our own free will. I know that classical Christian understanding is that evil is just the absence of good and so wasn't technically created by God. I know that free will, which allows the option of evil to enter the world, is necessary because there has to be a genuine choice in order for our acceptance or rejection of God to be real. I know that without free will we would be pre-conditioned beings like robots, without the ability to love.
The trouble is, I don't really buy any of those arguments. I get them, I've studied them and I realise they are intellectually credible even if they are not flawless.
But they don't bite. What about Josef Fritzl?
Elisabeth Fritzl was imprisoned in a basement for 24 years where she was raped, assaulted and abused by her father, Josef. During her captivity, she gave birth to seven children and had one miscarriage. Three of her children never left the basement before they were discovered and the eldest was 19 before she saw the light of day.
Could I sit in front of Elisabeth Fritzl and say the reason God allowed that to happen was because of free will? Could I tell her children that the evil they experienced was not anything real, but rather simply the absence of good? Absolutely not.
Although the classic arguments are intellectually plausible, they are not emotionally satisfying. I am still deeply troubled by the problem of suffering. From disability to warfare, I find the real existence of evil and suffering disturbing.
But I am a Christian. I am a living paradox – I know real evil exists but I still believe in a good and loving God.
What I am left with are the observations of a South American theologian called Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote in twentieth century Peru and experienced the harsh oppression of dictators and the extreme poverty that resulted. His strapline was that God is preferentially committed to the poor and the suffering.
This doesn't mean that God isn't committed to or doesn't love those who are not vulnerable; it is not an exclusive choice. Rather, as Gutiérrez once said in an interview, "God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life."
This fits. It sits much better with me than any of the classical answers above. If Jesus is the primary means by which God chose to reveal himself to humanity, then ours is a God who chooses to reveal himself among the poor and suffering.
If we look beyond Jesus, the God of the Bible chose the Jews to be his people. Historically, the Jews are probably among the most persecuted and oppressed people groups. They have experienced slavery, genocide, invasion, oppression, hatred and ridicule throughout the generations. And it was this people that God chose to represent him on earth.
Time and again God has chosen the lowly, weak, poor and suffering as the people to carry a message or bring some revelation of who he is.
Above all, if there is one point that demonstrates God's care and love for the suffering it is that the moment he was most glorified was on the cross. The pinnacle of God's revelation of himself on Earth was when he was beaten and naked, left nailed on a tree to die.
That comforts me more than any of the responses I've given to my friends. It is much less logically sensible, it is probably much easier to take apart intellectually, and I am still just as confused and disturbed by the existence of evil. But I am utterly convinced that God not only loves those who are suffering, but is preferentially committed to them.
It is not just that God is with them, but that he loves them and knows what their suffering is like because he has undergone suffering and pain, too.
This doesn't answer my intellectual questions but it does answer my emotional concerns. I don't know why evil and suffering exist, but I know that God is on the side of those who suffer. And that is about as close to an answer to the problem of suffering as I will get.