Sunday, September 27, 2015
The Old Testament can be read as one long debate about the problem of evil and unjust suffering. It begins by declaring in the law that God will keep his people from suffering if they only follow and obey. If anyone is suffering, it declares, this is because they have sinned and been unfaithful. Then along comes books like the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job where this law is questioned. They complain that they are suffering unjustly. These books call God to task, saying "I am suffering, yet I have been faithful. What's going on?! Why are you letting this happen? This is wrong!"
In short, the question "Why would an all-powerful and good God allow evil?" did not originate with atheism, rather it originated way before that in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a part of our sacred texts. If we understand the Psalms as examples of prayers and worship, then asking that kind of heart-wrenching question filled with desperation and pain and anger is... an act of worship. It is a part of the liturgy of prayer. Selah.
Now that kind of protest-as-worship is quite different from the common religious response to the question of "Why would an all-powerful and good God allow evil?" (which is known as the question of "theodicy"). Here the focus is typically on maintaining the all-powerful side of things at the expense of love and goodness. Explanations will be given as to why what seems to be horrific and devastatingly bad is in fact good and loving. It's all part of a bigger plan, you see. These arguments attempt to tell us how it is somehow "loving" to allow this horrible thing in order to preserve the idea that God is in control.
It's easy to understand why the stress is placed on keeping the all-powerful part. We want desperately to believe that things are under control. We need to believe that. But consider the history of the Israelites: They were enslaved by Egypt. God liberated them, and they had a moment in the sun, but then they were put under the thumb of Assyria, and then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, and finally under Rome. Basically they were passed as the spoils of war from one conquering nation to the next for generations upon generations. This is a people who know suffering.
The prophets told them that this was because of their unfaithfulness, and if they would just repent then all this suffering would stop. So they did repent, and the temple was rebuilt. But they were still under enemy rule (at the time of the rebuilding of the second temple they were under Persian rule if you're keeping score here).
So consider that history and put yourself in the shoes of a Jewish first century follower of Jesus the Messiah (in Greek: "the Christ"). The idea was that the messiah would be a warrior-king like David. The hope was that the messiah would come and restore Israel to power, and the unjust suffering of Gentile oppression of so many long years would finally stop.
Now, put yourself at the cross. The one that you had hoped would end all the injustice you and your family and your people have suffered for so long is being shamed and tortured and killed before your eyes. Jesus is dying, and all your hopes in God to make things right and good are dying with him on that cross.
The reaction of the disciples was to run and hide. Jürgen Moltmann has said, “Christians who do not have the feeling that they must flee the crucified Christ have probably not yet understood him in a sufficiently radical way.”
Along those same lines, let me say this: Most Christians do not understand the implications of the cross. Most Christians still hold to what Luther called a "theology of glory." Luther declares, "A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." That's exactly what we experience with typical apologetic responses to the problem of evil. We are told that what seems to be evil is actually good, and we just need to trust God's wisdom here.
A theology of the cross does not do that. A theology of the cross begins by facing the reality of human suffering head-on. It speaks to those who are in a place of suffering and begins by saying "this suffering you are experiencing is painful and bad. It is not good. It is not deserved. It seeks to offer support and love and compassion, but no matter how much love and goodness may come after this, it does not change the fact that this bad thing really is bad.
Jesus shows us how God enters into our world of suffering and becomes a victim of unjust suffering. That is the crucified God, and that understanding of God completely changes how we understand who God is. It kills the understanding of a God of power and control. Because of this, Moltmann says “Only a Christian can be a good atheist.” What he means is that to call the crucified God "Lord" is to declare that the God of power, the God of Caesar, the God of empire, and indeed the God of Christiandom... is not.
That God of power is an idol. It is an attractive idol to be sure. Of course we want to believe that God is in control, and that bad things can't happen to us if we are good. But as much as I wish it were not the case, bad things do happen to good people.
What's more, when we go to those who are suffering, seeking to show love and help, this can hurt us. Working with the poor and oppressed may sound romantic, but that's not reality. The fact is, it hurts to share in the grief and pain of another. The word compassion means literally "co-pain" and there's a lot of truth in that. We know a guy who volunteered to help victims following a natural disaster. Years later he is still dealing with the trauma that resulted from what he experienced there. He insists he would do it all over again, but the trauma he now carries from it is still real. He carries those scars, scars born of compassion.
The answer to the problem of evil that we see in the God revealed on the cross is one that calls us to join with those who suffer. That's hard, and carries a cost. It does not come offering explanations, but offering our lives, our selves. It is an image of God who carries scars, and who asks us to love like that, too.
It's been said that the greatest act of courage is found in losing everything worth living for, and deciding nevertheless to live. The reason that I hold to the theology of the cross is because it can face the hard reality of our broken and unjust world and still allow me to hold on to trust and hope and, most of all, hold on to love. We as humans need to hold on to love.
Jesus, on the night before his death, ate a last meal with his disciples. He told them he was going away, but stressed that they were not being abandoned. He told them they would suffer too, "in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). That is the tension we need to live in: Suffering happens, especially when we love greatly, but somehow we need to hold on to our trust in goodness and love despite it. That is the courageous balancing act of trusting in love in our broken world, trusting in the crucified God.