[This article was contributed by Apollos]

I understand that illustrations (descriptive not pictorial) have limitations and can rarely be perfect in explaining complex issues. However I am interested in whether anyone else has any issues with a very central illustration used in the “What Does the Bible Really Teach Book” to deal with the important question of why God allows suffering.

As we are all acutely aware the issue itself has proved to be a stumbling block to a large proportion of humans coming to know God, or in many cases has caused people to withdraw from God when they have not received a satisfactory answer. Therefore it is a vitally important part of our ministry to be able to truly address the question scripturally and logically. Over the years we, and people of other denominations, have attempted to find ways to help people understand how a God of love can permit humans to suffer. In our case we base the whole framework on the issue of universal sovereignty, and tailor our explanation accordingly.

Since the “Bible Teach” book is our current concise Bible study aid for interested persons we can reasonably expect the best case to be presented therein. I won’t reproduce the entire illustration here. It starts on page 110 paragraph 12. If you don’t have a copy of the book you can easily search for the information at jw.org.

Now let us seriously consider the idea of a rebellious student in a classroom. Would a teacher just hand over the piece of chalk and take a back seat in order to allow the class to learn the falsity of the student’s claim? He might, but it depends. Even under normal circumstances where the student was just verbally contentious I don’t think this would be considered by many to be the best way of dealing with it. The teacher in possession of all the facts would likely be able to demonstrate by theory to intelligent students why the rebellious student is wrong, rather than simply giving him a pedestal to promote his wrong ideas. Since that is what would mostly happen in real life why do we so readily accept that the scenario painted in the illustration realistically demonstrates the best solution available.

Let’s take it a step further. The student is given the chance to have his say, but he becomes violent. Other students who simply want to learn begin to be assaulted. Now what does the teacher do? Would he decide that the point has not yet been fully proven, but that this is encouraging because now the students will be sure to see the distinction between the rebel’s way and that of the teacher? What parent would accept such an explanation from a teacher or other authority figure who had full power to step in at any time and prevent harm?

In paragraph 15 we are asked to consider two things that the teacher would not do. First he would not stop the rebel student from making his case. Second he would not help the rebel to make his case. Both are stated as if they are self-evident. Now granted the second of these is true, but on what basis does the first one work in the illustration if ongoing harm is being done to others.

Now let me be clear about this article. It is NOT a criticism of Almighty God’s way of doing things. It is simply an observation that we have to be aware of the limitations of illustrations we might use. It’s very easy to adopt a mindset of “this is all very simple to understand”, or we often point the finger at other faiths in regard to something they believe that we don’t agree with and say “the truth is so simple by comparison”.

Well the fact is that there are simply some things that are difficult to understand, and people are not being difficult when they might not “get it”.

If someone cares to straighten out my thoughts on that I’d welcome the input.

Now there will be those who say that I simply expect too much from an illustration. That is fine. However, we can’t have it both ways. If we claim to understand something fully, then we really ought to be able to illustrate it fully. If there are limitations to our understanding of a situation then we should be able to acknowledge that also.

I would contrast the illustration with the simple example of parents who allow their child to undergo a painful operation because they know it will ultimately save his life. Now it doesn’t answer all the questions and doesn’t address all the issues that the teacher/classroom illustration attempts to tackle (most notably the sovereignty issue), but at least what it does illustrate fits both in real life and in what we understand of the bigger picture.