The Theology of the Cross as an Answer to the Problem of Evil

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. 

Most of all Jesus asked his friends to promise him that when he was gone they would love each other as he had loved them. The way we can truly answer the problem of evil in our world is by learning how to do that. So when you encounter suffering, don't explain, don't justify. But as Paul says, remain in these three things--trust, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.

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Apologetics: Why The Questions Matter More Than The Answers

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Recently, I got a question from a reader who asks,

"If God was a loving God, why did he destroy large groups of people, such as the Egyptians in the time of Moses, many of whom were innocent children?"
The typical response you'll find to this question in apologetic works and biblical commentaries is to try to explain why it is somehow "loving" to do this. I discuss this in my book Disarming Scripture and note that as a result we find that otherwise good and compassionate people find themselves justifying moral atrocities in a misguided attempt to defend the Bible and their faith.

I don't want to do that. I'm convinced that Jesus does not want us to do that. Jesus did not ever seek to justify hurting people. He did just the opposite. He confronted the religious leaders of his time who were using the law to justify shutting people out from God's love. 

So what I would want to say here is that this is a really good and important question to ask. It's a question motivated by compassion. It's the kind of question the prophets and Jesus asked. Getting to the answer for this question has a lot to do with understanding that the Old Testament is a multi-vocal book. But much more importantly I would want to affirm this question as a good question to ask. That is, I would want to say, never stop questioning suffering, never stop protesting it.

The real faith-based answer to the classic question of theodicy "why would an all-powerful and loving God allow suffering and evil?" is not to offer a justification, but to recognize that when we question suffering and evil, when our hearts cry out "No!" to human suffering, we are crying out for compassion and love and Jesus-shaped restorative justice. We should never stop doing that. We should never stop asking questions motivated by compassion.
It's often said that the questions we ask are more important than the answers, but what does that actually mean? It certainly doesn't mean that the answers don't matter. After all, why bother to ask a question in the first place if the answer doesn't matter? 

The reason asking questions is important is because that's how we learn and grow. The goal therefore is not to get to a point where we stop asking questions and have all the answers. That may be how children idealistically view their parents, but we grown-ups know it is not the reality of actually being a parent or an adult. Instead the goal is to learn how to ask, and seek, and knock. Asking questions is a healthy characteristic of a person who is growing and maturing. If we shut down those questions we shut down that growth. That's why the questions are so important.

So I always want to encourage people to ask questions. Learning how to do this is not a problem to be overcome, it's the means to growth. That's something Christians have a really hard time getting. Often the goal is to give answers in order to stop you from asking questions. The questions are seen as a threat to faith. They are seen as doubt. 

There's a world of difference however between the kind of answers that are intended to get you to stop asking questions, and the kind of answers that are intended to help you to work through your faith in an honest way leading to maturity and character. One is just a form of spin. It's a slight of hand that gives you a clever answer that really just dodges the issue. The other is born from someone who really has struggled with the same questions themselves, sharing what they have found, and inviting you into the journey with them. 

In short, there are two kinds of apologetics: honest apologetics, and spin apologetics. Sadly more and more our culture is characterized by spin and not by honesty. In a recent interview, Peter Enns commented that in mainstream Evangelicalism you can ask anything, but there are only certain answers you are allowed to arrive at. That's because the desire is not to actually seek truth, but to uphold the ideological/doctrinal party-line. That's spin-apologetics.

I don't know about you, but I want to seek truth, even if it is hard and uncomfortable. I want to have a faith that is rooted in reality, not in wishful thinking. But it's not just bare facts we are talking about here. Theology is about figuring out what is good, and what leads to life. When I speak of seeking "truth" I'm really talking about seeking what is good. 

When Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life" I see all of those as integrally tied together. It's about that way of Jesus, which is rooted in reality, and which leads to life. That's what I am seeking. When I question it is in order to pull me closer to that, like a moth drawn to a flame. I hunger and thirst for that life-giving truth. That's why I question. I question so I can grow.

Does Jesus Want You To Buy A Gun?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Luke’s Gospel records Jesus saying to his disciples “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Lk 22:36). If Jesus is advocating nonviolence why does he say this? Would Jesus advise Americans today “if you don’t have a gun, sell your laptop and buy one”?

In my book Disarming Scripture I discuss this passage in detail, and point out that in the very same chapter, when Luke tells of how the disciples then tried to use those swords to defend their Lord, Jesus sternly rebuked them for it, healing the person Peter struck, and yelling at him “No more of this!” (v. 51). Matthew’s account of the same incident records Jesus as saying to his disciples “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword!” (Mt 26:52).

So why did Jesus tell his disciples to buy swords in the first place? Or said differently, why would Jesus tell his disciples to buy swords, but then rebuke them for using them?

There are a number of explanations that biblical scholars have proposed to make sense of this, but let’s face it: Understanding Jesus is hard. Maybe that's why the Gospels record over and over how the disciples got Jesus wrong, as Luke does here, and why we still do today. Jesus speaks in paradoxes and parables. He says confusing things like “if you want to be the boss, be a slave” and “love those you hate” and “if you want to be first, be last.” Jesus commonly says things that are intended to throw people off, in order to make them question their assumptions. So if you are not thrown off by the things Jesus says, you just aren’t paying attention.

The question for us as his followers is how we can properly adopt his teachings and way. A reader wrote to me asking this very question,

“On the question of why Jesus told them to buy the swords, are you open to the idea that this was for self-defense? Jesus is speaking about a huge change in their situation. Before when the disciples went out preaching, they didn’t need a moneybag and a knapsack because people were happy to welcome them and generous to provide for them (v. 35). But following his death their message will no longer be welcome. They will have to face persecution and can no longer count on people’s generosity (v. 36). “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack.” In that context he tells them they should buy a sword. I think he is saying that they will need one for their own protection. But he did not intend for them to use swords on this occasion to prevent his arrest and crucifixion.”

As discussed above, Jesus directly rebuked his disciples for using a sword to defend him, but is it possible that Jesus was telling them to use the sword later for their own self-defense?

Based on how the disciples and early church responded to the persecution they encountered, I think the only possible answer to that question is that they did not think so. The fact of history is that the disciples and early church did not defend themselves with swords, even though their lives were endangered, even though it would have been clearly a case of self-defense, and their contemporaries commonly did reach for their swords.

Instead, they were persecuted and killed. That is just a fact of history. The early followers of Jesus (for the first few centuries, pre-Constantine) were in fact known for refusing to defend their lives with violence, and associated this with faithfulness to Jesus. That’s the whole idea of being a martyr for Jesus.

Now, does that mean that we as Christians today should not defend ourselves when our lives are in danger? Some would say yes. They would understand Jesus’ teachings as forbidding the use of violence. Nonviolence here is primarily about what you are not permitted to do, similar perhaps to saying “no sex outside of marriage.”

I don’t want to necessarily disagree with that, but I do want to propose that if this is all we get from Jesus, we are missing the real power of his teaching. A focus on what one should not do is reflective of a low level of morality. The more morally advanced question is, what can we do to make things better – what can we do to restore and reconcile?

For example, take divorce: One could easily take Jesus’ words to say that divorce is categorically forbidden. On a low moral level we ask questions of permission and prohibition. So the question here becomes, “Am I allowed to get a divorce or not?” But the deeper and more important question to ask is “What do we need to do to have a good and healthy marriage” and more specifically “How can we break out of our patterns of hurt and conflict, and restore trust, and the joy, surprise, and closeness in our relationship again?” After all, I think we can also all agree that no one likes divorce. It’s a painful and tragic experience. So the goal is to see if it is possible to help marriages to be restored.

That’s a totally different question, because the focus is not on “am I permitted to do this” but rather on working towards restoring, reconciling, and redeeming. This focus on redemption is the core focus of Jesus. Again, it’s not a focus on what is forbidden, but a focus on redeeming and healing and making broken things whole. When we instead focus on what is permitted/prohibited we really miss the very heart of the message of Jesus and his gospel which was all about restoring broken humanity. That’s what Jesus spent all his time doing. That’s what he’s in the business of doing today.

That means that wherever Jesus finds us, no matter what imperfect place we are at, the focus is not a legalistic one of condemning us. If you are divorced for instance, the point is not to say that this was some kind of moral failure. The point is to ask, no matter where we are, what can be done right where we are at that will lead to life? This is an approach that is not naive or idealistic, but very aware that our human experience is one of imperfection and struggle. It begins right in the middle of that, and seeks to move us towards love.

In regards to self-defense, I totally understand why a person would want to defend themselves or their loved ones. So would I. You will get no condemnation from me there. But what I do want us to try to do is think together about what we might be able to do to promote peace and resolve conflict. How can we work towards that, while of course caring for the safety and well-being of everyone involved?

As long as we are asking the question of “is this justified?” we will not be able to get to that bigger and harder question of “how can I work towards making things better?” In the case of divorce, a trained couples therapist would certainly not forbid a couple from getting a divorce. Of course that’s an option. But the focus would be on working to repair and restore the relationship. Perhaps we can say the same with the use of violence for self-defense. In fact, it may be for many of us that we can only get to asking how we can work to resolve conflict and reduce violence after we first allow ourselves to say it’s a justifiable and understandable response. Perhaps we need to say to each other,

I can’t condemn you for resorting to violence in self-defense. I might do the same if I were in that situation. But let’s work together to see if we can find a better way. Let’s find out how we can actively work to lessen violence, resolve conflict, and restore relationships. Let’s learn how to work for justice and peace.

The big picture here, exegetically speaking, is that we need to get away from reading a particular verse or sentence from Jesus and turning this into a rule or universal principle. What we instead need to do is immerse ourselves in all of what Jesus taught until we actually get it and can then run with it, expanding and developing it, living it out in our lives and world. That’s a very different approach to biblical interpretation than most of us have learned, but it’s one that will lead us to a much deeper understanding of the way of Jesus, and why it is truly the way to life.

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Why Read the Bible?

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

A common question I deal with in regards to the Bible is how one can move from an authoritarian reading to one that involves ethical/moral engagement and responsibility. I have written about that quite a bit. This time around however I want to address a question that comes at things from the other side, and asks basically "Why should we read the Bible at all? Why not just toss it in the waste bin?"

I want to stress that both of these questions, while coming at things from opposite sides, are really asking the same thing: How can I read the Bible in a way that leads to love? Both are asking about how we can have a moral reading of Scripture. They are just coming at the question from different starting places, and both hoping to arrive at a place that is good, arriving at a place that promotes love and faith, and is characterized by moral maturity.

So let's dive into the question asked by a reader which I think captures the dilemma quite well,
“The question I have is, If the Bible more times than not leads us to a misunderstanding of God, why give it such preeminence in one's relationship with him, especially after we come to a realization of God as love?...

I would agree that IF we are going to use the Bible, we need to read it through the lens of love... I just don't see the benefits of continuing to base my revelation of love on a book that more times than not won't get me there.”

Great question. Let's start by putting things into some perspective: Remember that the Bible is not the goal of our faith, Christ is. Christ is not a concept we find in a book, or set of teachings. Christ is alive. We are seeking a living connection with the one who is life, and truth. Through that living connection we are relationally formed into Christ’s image. Not by doctrine, but through relationship.

The Bible is a vehicle whose purpose is to lead us to Christ. If we find that it leads us away from Christ, away from loving action, away from compassion, and towards hurtful things—like self-loathing, hard-heartedness, and ungrace—then we need a change.

Perhaps that change entails learning to read it differently, in a way that leads us to Christ. One of the aims of my book Disarming Scripture is to work out how to read Scripture like Jesus did. However, for many this may need to come in steps.

Perhaps because of long indoctrination we will be unable to read even the words of Jesus without hearing them in a way that is shaming and leading us away from love. In that case, we may need to learn from someone else who shows us the way of Jesus, and shows us how see things in a way that leads us to life and love, rather that getting this directly from the NT.

Let’s return to the idea though that “the Bible more times than not leads us to a misunderstanding of God.” Here I think it’s critical that we differentiate between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is not a book that presents a single vision of who God is and what is good, but rather it is a collection of books with multiple conflicting visions of who God is and what is good. It is a catalog of a people’s developing understandings of God over time. So some of the understandings in it are terrible and wrong. That’s why we frequently hear a biblical writer say “that’s terrible and wrong!” The prophets do that all the time.

So you can’t just flip open the OT and follow whatever it says. It may be something awful and immoral. You need to learn to embrace the things that Jesus embraced, and reject the things that he rejected. The Old Testament in that regard is a lot like life. There is good in life, but you need to look hard for it, and there is also a whole lot of rotten stuff going on in the world. Just watch the news. So with life, and with the OT, we need to learn to dig for the gold, and that means that we also will need to dig through a lot of dirt to get there.

With the New Testament the case is different because it is pretty consistent in the vision it presents of who God is and what is good. There are some differences among the NT writers to be sure, but these represents differences in how to best live in the way of mercy, as opposed to one person advocating mercy and another advocating the opposite (like Moses commanding soldiers to “show them no mercy!” in the OT).

With the NT the real problem is often not the minor differences in the applications of the NT writers, or the limitations they had (for example the idea of abolishing slavery seemed to not be on their mental horizon), but far more what we bring to the NT as we read it.

Many if not most Evangelicals have been taught to begin with the unChristlike values of the Old Testament (things like seeing vengeance as just and good, or seeing greatness in terms of glory and power, rather than humility and service) and carry these values over to how they read the NT. Instead, we should be letting the NT correct the OT, but we do the opposite.

So that means we need to get a new vision of what is good that is based on what we see (or should see) in Jesus. If however we are projecting these unChristlike visions of what is good onto Jesus, then the NT will not lead us to Christ, and in fact can keep us from Christ.

This brings me to the pursuit of the good. What is good? We might ask. How can we know? I do not believe in arguments based on authority. I believe in arguments based on merit. The way of Jesus is not good “because I said so! that’s why!” (an argument of authority). It is good because it can be demonstrated to actually be good. The way of grace and forgiveness is not easy, but we can experience that they are indeed good and life-giving in a deep way.

So we begin with what we can recognize is good. Not based on “because I said so” authority, but based on its actual merit.

So I say, if you can best get to that way of life by not reading the Bible, then do it. Do what you need to do to move towards the one who is life. I’m sure that Jesus would care most that we are able to find life and love, and move towards showing that love to others, no matter how we get there.

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