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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At 9:29 PM, Blogger Owen said...

The best post i've read from you yet, my friend ..

At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

This is good stuff Derek. Something i think Warren Wiersbe said in one of his books i read has always stayed with me. *God takes His own medicine* God chose to experience all that we do so He could carry out the love He is. When Peter tried to rebuke Jesus from his death and resurrection, Jesus told him he was acting like satan, thinking of mans interests and not Gods. I think i said this in my last comment but not sure. God allowing evil provides a way to avoid Him being responsible for evil and for us to maintain our freewill. The whole notion about *bad things happening to good people* comes into question too. Jesus said no one is good except God.We are all sinners and so according to Gods measuring stick, since sin is *missing the mark*, we all are eligible for sufferin gand bad things. The act of God transforming evil and bad things into good and His own allowing the ultimate evil to be done to Him and turn it into the ultimate good is the theology of the cross you are talking about.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger Erich said...

I agree with much in this post, but had this question. Does the reality of bad things happening to good people necessarily mean that God is not in control? Your post seems to imply this, and I was wondering if you could clarify in some way. Thanks!

At 12:28 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

One could read what Derek has written as a denial of God's sovereignty. I tend to think this is related to God's self limitation and self emptying (Kenosis) which allows evil to frequently triumph. To me God is still in control but he chooses to allow evil to a much greater extent than we are comfortable with. If God did not limit evil, things would be much worse than they are, not that things are not very bad. I speak as someone probably loosing a battle with cancer. DaveW

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

“Why does God allow this or that evil in the world? Why did God allow the mass deaths of Lisbon or Auschwitz? This is a trick question— even a cruel one—in that it implies that God sits as a cosmic regulator, giving or withholding permission for every temporal event, signing off on some and preventing others according to an eternal master plan. Where human freedom cannot be blamed for a particular evil, some theodicies retreat behind mystery to justify God’s apparently arbitrary choices. But if God’s ‘choices’ (as willful edicts) are involved, skeptics can reference Lisbon or Auschwitz to make the formidable case that God’s choices have been monstrous. By contrast, a theology of the Cross responds to “why does God allow …?” with “God obviously allows everything!” If God is all-pow­erful, his power is not akin to control.”
(Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God)

The observable fact that God does not prevent anything--including people committing atrocities, natural disasters, and terminal illness--means that we need to re-think the traditional understanding of sovereignty so that it works with this reality. The question is: What does sovereignty look like if God does not stop bad things from happening? Or to put it differently, what is it that we can trust God for?

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Owen said...

I'm sorry to hear that. May the God that empties Godself be your constant ..

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Maybe the Incarnation was God's one and only intervention in the world. Maybe it's enough.

At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

What can we trust God for?? This is one of the most important questions i think we can ever ask Derek. Job and Ecclesiastes wrestle with this question in different ways. I think relationship is the most desirable answer. God IS Love. He loves us that He became one of us and even died for us. Being able to trust God to be with us, at all times,regardless if we feel it, know it,understand it or even believe it. To me that is the answer i want. The trouble in wondering about this is that why even when we arer in the throes of pain and hurt, despairing of everything,does He remain silent or hidden?? Scripture is filled with references to how much God cares about us and wants us to know Him intimately. Why then does He allow Himself to be hidden or distant??? From all i have seen it seems emotional issues are where people have the deepest struggle with God,not intellectual. Why do our emotions fluctuate so much???

Gingoro- very sorry to hear your situation. I hope God provides all you need as you deal with it

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Al Gents said...

Very good article and one that reminds me/us to keep our heads above water when so many things are not going well for us. While living and working in Myanmar I used to say to friends who were enquiring about my "religion" that the God I walk with wants to bless all people with God's "fruit of the Spirit" love joy peace patience goodness, long suffering, etc. so that when troubles difficulties and hardships come our way then we can draw upon the "fruit of the Spirit" to walk through the hardships. Now that we've been back in Australia for three months I have had multiple frustrations and hardships of different kinds and am reminded to draw upon the fruit of God's Spirit while accepting these hardships are real and part of life on this grinding and groaning earth.

At 11:45 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Wow. I've never heard this kind of Jesus message. The pain of compassion. The theology of the cross. The radical nature of the cross that causes us to flee from the crucified Christ. I really enjoyed this well written blog. Thank you Derek. . . .P.S. My thoughts on that Luther quote really made me think of Calvinism's "glory theology."

At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes I agree about the Calvinist theology of glory being the antithesis to a theology of the cross. Same with Anselm's focus on honor. I'd add that Luther's theology in it's self-focus also fell short of the theology of the cross. So we might say that Luther pointed us to a height that he was himself not able to reach, and we need to keep moving in that direction which he pointed us. Moltmann has done a great deal to furthering that.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Well shared Derek. This is the rub for the conservative reformed evangelical and charismatic church. All the claiming of promises in the world, or trusting in God taking special care of us, or following all the scriptures in total obedience.
1: Bad things happen to good people, so?
2: Well, God could a stopped it.
1: Assuming God is all powerful. Yet He didn't. He didn't because He isn't able to stop it, enjoys our suffering, or has a secret purpose it is so God looks good in the end?
2: Huh?
1. Unless God is somehow still good even as suffering abounds. Rather than stop it He took it on Himself to show "yup, life isn't fair, it is full of pain. But the good news that in the midst of life there is a good God walking through it with us comforting and guiding us along.". From there, we can then begin to talk about God's plan to restore all things as we cooperate together to bring about God's idea of what life is to be about. His kingdom and His will.
2: OK. But can't God intervene?
1. Yes. Through us He can, we are the hands and feet of Christ says the social justice Christian. Through us He can as we pray and lay out tracks for the train of His will says the devoted to prayer Christian. Through us as we step out and ask for God to act says the embracer of the supernatural Christian.
2. So we can debate how much God controls and how suffering God is responsible for or we can join God in the work of alleviating that suffering and making this world more like heaven than hell.
1: yup.


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