Suffering, Universalism, Exclusivity, Election – all at Starbucks



Sometimes I wish I could bring you in on some of the conversations we have at Doubt Night. So here’s a recount of some from our last one. These aren’t exact quotes or in exact sequence – but an abbreviated version of an hour and half conversation by my best memory a week later. Also names other than mine have been changed.

Ajay: Here’s a quote by Epicurus, an ancient Greek thinker.

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

So what do you guys think? Has the presence of suffering been an obstacle for you in terms of faith? What has been your experience with suffering?

(Good conversation with each of us talking about feeling like we’ve been sheltered from suffering, but have known people who have been deeply and painfully acquainted with it. Talked about how suffering does not disprove God – for God can allow suffering for reasons we may not presently understand. Basically talked through Keller’s argument from chapter 2 of Reason for God.)

George: The way I see it is that God is like a chess player. He is able to sacrifice pawns and pieces, but it’s okay because in the end he wins and the pieces will be a part of his victory. If he’s God, he can do whatever he wants. He will win. And even though each piece suffers, they will enjoy in his victory later.

Ajay: You mean through resurrection or in the afterlife?

George: Yeah.

Ajay: George, I actually agree with you and your analogy. But probably for different reasons, cause we’re usually on two different pages.

George: (laughs) Yeah probably. See I think that suffering is okay, because we’ll all be in heaven afterward. Everyone. That’s the only way its fair or makes sense. Each piece can be sacrificed because each piece will be in heaven.

Ajay: Everyone? Like the rapist, Hitler, the serial murderer, everyone?

George: Yeah, everyone.

Ajay: Then what do you do with evil and where is justice?

George: I don’t think there is evil. (Talks for a bit about how you could argue that there is no ‘cold’ but rather the absence of heat. Likewise, there is no evil, but the absence of good. Also how when you look back on something, like a test or trial, it may have seemed bad, but turns out to have been something different – even beneficial.)

Ajay: I agree that looking back on a horrible event, you may be able to see good as a result of it. I do believe that God is able to work good from evil. But that doesn’t remove the fact that the event itself was evil. Like rape, murder – that stuff is evil – even if good can come from it. And George, there’s a contradiction. You don’t want to believe in evil or injustice, but it is a sense of evil or injustice that has you going down the road of universalism. You think everyone has to go to heaven, cause otherwise that would be ‘bad’ or ‘injust’ or ‘evil’ and yet you also want to maintian that there is no such thing as injustice or evil.

(One of the coolest things has been how humble and amicable everyone has been. We have intense disagreements, but in a spirit of peace. George displayed this by admitting that there does seem to be a contradiction in his thought.)

Jenny: I’ve been thinking about this stuff since the last time we talked. Some of the stuff George said has stuck with me. And the way that I’ve justified it all to myself is that Jesus is true for me – but He may not be true for everyone else. I just don’t see how so many of my good friends who are Hindu or Muslim will go to hell.

Sarah: This is what I think. I think we Christians believe in one God. The Muslims believe in one God. The Hindus have thousands, but really its one God. I think its all the same God.

(some more conversation about these ideas)

Ajay:  You see you think you’re being humble by letting everyone come to heaven. But your heaven is a very Christian idea. There are several religions that don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife, and certainly not one with Jesus. And so, though it appears humble to say that everyone will be in heaven with you, you are imposing your view of the afterlife on them. Its like you want to take one part of your religion, put it on everyone, but maintain that it is the most humble way. You want to take heaven from the Scriptures, but leave out the means of getting there from the same Scriptures.

And I think we need to establish what the Christian gospel is, so that if we’re poking holes, we’re poking holes at the same thing. (For five minutes or so, I shared the Gospel – a good God, a good creation, sin, the depravity of all men, the impossibility of reaching God through effort or “good deeds”, the need for a God-man to be Savior, Jesus alone being the only subsitute for sin and the only way to God.)

Jenny: When you say it like that, it makes sense.

George: You talk about Jesus and all that, but you’re leaving out one part. And that is that God has already chosen who gets to come to him and who doesn’t. You haven’t talked about predestination. How is that fair?

Ajay: (Deep breath….oh boy! I talked about how this is not an easy idea, and that there is some mystery to it, etc) Here’s one shot at it. Say you three, George, Jenny, and Sarah – say you are horrific murderers who have committed terrible crimes and are justly going to receive the death sentence. And say, I say to Sarah – I’m going to take your place. That’s grace. And you two, George and Jenny – you can’t say that you’re getting something unfair – you’re getting what you deserve. But I am choosing to show grace to Sarah.

George: That is unfair. Especially when you have the power to pardon all three!

Jenny: Yeah. I get that you deserve death – but choosing one and not the others is unfair.

George: See, you don’t have an answer. It’s a contradiction. How can hell be the most horrible thing in the world – like it would be better to not be born than go to hell – then why would God create people who he knows are going to hell? There is no answer. You don’t have an answer and I don’t have answer. We’re both right.

Ajay: (Hopefully you see that these conversations have been good and intense and dizzing) I think there is an answer, but you just won’t like it.

George: There is no answer. It’s a contradiction.

Ajay: I think there is an answer, but you won’t like it. Romans 9 tells us that God is going to be glorified in both the wrath shown to some and the mercy shown to others. In both, God will be glorified.

Sarah: (Troubled) Wait a minute. Are you saying that everything is about God’s glory?

Ajay: (Wow. Pause.) Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. It’s all about God’s glory.

Jenny: That sounds so bad – like how can God be like that?

Ajay: I can imagine how unsettling that sounds. And we won’t be able to say everything tonight. But just one thought. Since you were little, you were taught that the highest pursuit of your life was to glorify God. (Everyone in the conversation comes from a Christian background) If you assume that’s true, that the chief end of man is to glorify God – why would it be something else for God? (sounding very Piperesque) If God is the most glorious being, and it is right for us to glorify Him – why would He in turn have his chief end in glorifying us and not Himself?


There was more conversation. We decided we’re going to skip ahead in Keller’s book and go to “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”. After that, we’re going to hit pause on Keller’s book and look at Romans 9 together. In talking about this, a friend told me that Paul puts Romans 9 where he does in the letter on purpose. That jumping into election without first talking about the sin and depravity of man, the glory of God, the impossibility of saving yourself, and the need for Christ is probably not a good idea. Until you see how glorious God is, how sinful you are and worthy of condemnation, and how much you need Jesus (Romans 1-8) election will seem like a travesty and not grace. So I’m going to try to see if they would be up for an abbreviated study of Romans, leading to chapter 9.

I drove home dizzy from the night. I love that this conversation is happening at Starbucks. I love that we leave each night  and walk to our cars laughing and not in animosity. I am deeply, deeply, deeply humbled. When we started I was so sure that all people needed to come running to faith in Jesus was my clever arguments with the help of Keller’s apologetics. I drove home repenting of my pride and arrogance. Regeneration is a miracle accomplished by God alone. A miracle is what it takes for the Gospel to go from being an offensive stumbling block to good news. Praying for a miracle.


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