Though the question is admittedly quite difficult, I was disappointed with Rob Bell’s response. The question is important, and I believe Christians have the responsibility to attempt a better answer.
Martin Bashir asked, “Which of [these] is true: [God] is all-powerful and He [does not care], or He cares and He’s not all-powerful.” Rob Bell responded by stating, “I think this is a paradox at the heart of the divine, and some paradoxes are best left exactly as they are.”
If we are to accept the legitimacy of reason, then we must maintain that if a paradoxical proposition is true, the apparent self-contradiction within the proposition is illusory. In other words, if a paradoxical proposition is true, it must be misunderstood or understood incompletely. If it were true, and completely understood, there could be no self-contradiction. If God’s infinite love coupled with His infinite power is “a paradox at the heart of the divine,” and nevertheless a true doctrine, then we must misunderstand either the nature of His infinite love, the nature of His infinite power, or both. Therefore, we should not, as Bell suggests, leave the paradox exactly as it is, but instead seek to correct our misunderstanding of God so that we can accurately represent Him to the world.
Bashir’s question is based on the implicit assumption that if God truly loves us, then he will immediately supernaturally intervene to remove our physical suffering to the full extent that he is capable of doing so. If this assumption is true, then Bashir’s question is legitimate. We are forced to choose one of the two options he presents: given the fact of the suffering in Japan, God either does not care or He is not powerful. However, if this assumption is not true, then Bashir’s question is not legitimate. It is a false dilemma, and a third option is possible, namely that God both cares and is all-powerful.
Instead of avoiding the dilemma, Rob Bell should have demonstrated that the assumption at the heart of the dilemma is incompatible with basic Christian doctrine.
First, the Bible teaches that physical suffering entered the world because of a relational breach between God and His creatures. Therefore, physical pain and death are but symptoms of the real disease, which is this separation from God. God’s intervention can only mollify or delay our physical pain; while the spiritual death exists, the physical death must exist as well. Ultimately, God can only remove the symptoms by removing the disease.
Furthermore, the Bible teaches that the disease is incurable. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We are separated from God because we are tainted with the darkness of sin, and this separation is irreversible. God cannot “just forgive us” anymore than light can just forgive darkness. It is impossible for God, being what he is, and we, being what we are, to live in fellowship with one another, just as it is impossible for light, being what it is, and darkness, being what it is, to occupy the same space.
Finally, the Bible teaches that God has revealed his love to us by going to the utter extremity to restore relationship with men. At great personal cost, God did the only thing possible to save us. He became a man and took our disease on Himself, experiencing its full outworking in His own body on the cross, and then, being stronger than death, He rose again to new life. If through faith we allow ourselves to be joined together with Him, He will carry us through death and into His eternal life.
I freely admit that God hardly ever supernaturally intervenes to alleviate our physical suffering. The unbeliever will cite this as evidence that God does not exist. The Christian, however, believes that this is because God is seeking to fix the disease, not simply patch over the symptoms. Jesus could have healed everyone on earth with a word, but instead He walked from village to village, healing individual people one at a time. This was not because He did not love the sick. It was because He knew that their real need was not to see or to walk; it was to hear His voice and feel His touch. Everyone He healed, even those He raised from the dead, became sick again and died, but the ones who believed in Him received a life that transcended death (John 11:25).