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We're all part of the circle of life

Youth and Schools Programme Co-ordinator of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion Lizzie Henderson is used to answering young people's questions. When she addresses the question of why there is sufferring, she answers from experience, as she tells Nigel Bovey

All living things die and nutrients in our bodies go back into the ground

Lizzie, you have visited hundreds of schools and churches to talk about God and science. What is the hardest question you are asked?

It’s usually something along the lines of, ‘If the God you believe in is good, why do bad things happen?’ or ‘Why do good people die?’

How do you begin to answer?

First, I point out that these are some of the hardest questions that we can try to answer. For a start, there are so many parts to thinking about suffering. What do we mean by ‘good’? Where do we get our expectations of what God is like and what that should mean? What do we mean by ‘suffering’? Does suffering relate only to humans? There are many more.

More importantly, these kinds of questions can come from various types of experience, often from pain, so I always try to be sensitive to that.

One part of the answer that is hard, but important, to think about is that death is a natural part of life. All living things take in nutrients from the earth. Our body replicates cells a certain number of times before they begin to wear out. Eventually, all living things die and the nutrients in our bodies go back into the ground. It’s a little bit like the ‘circle of life’ described in the Disney film The Lion King.

This process has been happening for nearly four billion years. The only reason our planet has seen such wonderful diversity of life is because it has also seen a lot of death.

Death can also be useful while living things are alive. There is something called programmed cell death, which is essential to shape the way our bodies are formed and grow. This kind of death allows trees to grow and change their leaves, and allows people to be born with five fingers.

In general, we can sometimes understand that death is just part of life. But when it involves people we love, or when it seems unfair, that’s not really enough to answer our questions.

Another aspect of thinking about death comes from an example of when death seems unfair – natural disasters.

Earthquakes kill many people. That’s obviously a terrible thing. But when we look closely, we see that most of the people who die in earthquakes live in low-income countries in buildings that, mostly through lack of money, are not built to survive earthquakes. Where this happens, we have to recognise that humans have a responsibility for how they look after the planet and each other.

We need to think carefully about what we do with that responsibility.

But there are obviously many events – natural disasters or personal loss – where people have no control over the outcome. The hard question remains: Why?

Christianity doesn’t give an easy answer, but it also doesn’t try to pretend that the question is not real. It never promises that nothing bad will happen. In fact, it tells us that this life will be hard. But it also says that there is real hope.

The Bible teaches us that death is not the end, that we can have eternal life with God, which will be free from suffering, and that we can have this hope because God himself has been through more suffering than we know. So even when this life is hard, we can know that God understands our pain and walks through it with us.

Another important point I try to make when talking with young people is that it’s OK to be sad when somebody we love dies. It’s normal that losing someone will hurt. Relationships are an important part of human life and when those are broken, it hurts. But even when we recognise this, we can still feel lost and hopeless. That’s where I begin to talk about the difference that my faith makes to the way I think about these questions.

Taking this approach doesn’t necessarily answer the question of why there is suffering, but it does point to the powerful hope that I have experienced.

How much of that answer comes from personal experience?

Many people bring personal experience into how they talk about these kinds of questions. For me, one of the biggest examples of hope through suffering comes from losing my mum three and a half years ago. She died from cancer. I miss her every day. It really hurts. But I know that she knew God, so I have overwhelming peace through knowing that she is now living the fulfilment of her faith – that she is with God for ever and that one day I will see her again.

You have a degree in natural sciences, much of which was biology-based. To what extent did your scientific knowledge help or hinder you as you watched your mum’s health decline?

It sounds weird, but in some ways it was an interesting period of life. My dad had suffered a minor stroke around Christmas-time and my mum was diagnosed with cancer the following Easter.

I am not a medical expert, but having a little biological knowledge meant that I could look at what was happening to them from a few different perspectives. Much of it was genuine fascination – what is going on in their bodies?

As somebody who likes to understand things like that, knowing a bit of what was physically going on was – I don’t think ‘comforting’ is the right word – but it was helpful.

At the same time as appreciating how scientific knowledge could help people to understand and treat the illness in Mum’s body (praise God for medicine!), I knew that it was just a series of physical processes.

Understanding a little of the science gave me information, but it did not give me hope. We might talk about there being hope as long as there’s another treatment to try, hope that it might work and so on, but that’s not the kind of hope that the Bible talks about.

The real hope that I experienced – hope that brought a deep sense of comfort and security – came through knowing that God knew Mum. He made her. He made the medicine. He understood exactly what was going on in her cells and he had the power to heal her. Beyond that, whether she lived or died, Mum was secure in him and with him. We prayed a lot. Right through to the day that she died, we had complete faith that God could heal her. But we also knew that even if he did, it would be temporary – that any healing in this life is going to last only so long, because one day we’re all going to die. The bigger question, and bigger victory, is not healing but having a relationship with God.

Why didn’t God answer your prayers for healing?

I don’t know. But I do know that God is always good and that he turns all kinds of situations, however good or bad, into things that glorify him. When we were praying for Mum, there was a sense that it would be amazing if she were healed and up and about now. But her prayer and ours was that God would be glorified.

Of course, it would be wonderful if God had healed her and she was still with us but, for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. But we’ve seen so much good happen. Through her story, people have been impacted, have heard about God and seen the response of a Christian family dealing with death in a way that, I hope, points to and honours God.

We mourn the fact that she’s not here with us, but there’s no sadness for her. She is with God. How can that be sad?

Why do you believe in Heaven?

There are many ideas about life and what comes after it. For me, Christianity makes the most sense of all the big questions. Christianity tells me that this existence isn’t all there is and that in this life we can choose whether or not to have a relationship with God. It also teaches me that if we do choose to have that relationship with him, then, when we die, that relationship will continue for ever.

The Bible talks about a new Heaven and a new earth – not angels with harps on clouds, but something concrete, with some kind of continuity with this present life. Although it doesn’t stop the hurt and grief now, I find a huge amount of hope in that.

Why do you reject the atheistic view that after death there is nothing?

There’s a lot more in Christianity that convinces me of its truth besides the question of life after death. But the central point of Christianity is that Jesus died, rose to life and is still living, making a way for us to have the same, eternal life.

There is solid evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and I have personal experience of living in relationship with Jesus today. So all of that is pretty convincing! But even taken on its own, I don’t find the view that there’s nothing after death satisfying. It doesn’t fit with what I see in humanity.

For example, if there is nothing after death, it raises questions about how we regard other people. Does it matter what we do? If there’s nothing to come, no ultimate moral authority, then that raises huge moral and social issues, such as: Why should medics try to keep people alive? And, perhaps more to the point, why does it seem so important to us that they do?

We have to come to our own conclusions about the big questions, but I find that Christianity provides the most convincing and most comforting answers. I also find that those answers are the ones that best fit with the world I see around me.

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