I saw the same thing at another church, where a young couple lost a child in a late miscarriage. Some months later I spent several hours with them. Clearly numbed, they told me they did not understand why God had allowed the child to die. But they never gave a theological explanation for what happened. They blamed neither their own wickedness nor demons. Instead, they talked about how important it was to know that God had stood by their side. The husband quoted from memory a passage in the Gospel of John, where many followers abandon Jesus because his teachings don’t make sense to them. Jesus says sadly to his disciples, “You do not want to leave, too, do you?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
This approach to the age-old problem of theodicy is not really available to mainstream Protestants and Catholics, who do not imagine a God so intimate, so loving, so much like a person. That may help to explain why it is evangelical Christianity that has grown so much in the last 40 years.
It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people. But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation.
This may seem theologically simple-minded — indeed, even some evangelical Christians find it so. But there are lots of ways to explain things in this sophisticated, scientifically aware society. What churches like these offer is a way of dealing with unhappiness. Tragedy, and prayers that apparently go unanswered, can actually strengthen believers’ sense of a bond with God. That’s when they feel that they most need him.
T.M. Luhrman is a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.”