Saturday, March 03, 2012

a world of suffering and a God of love

Pain, suffering, death.
"God is love."

For some people--a lot of people--these ideas are mutually exclusive. 'If your god is all-loving and all-powerful', they'll ask, 'then why are there starving children?' This is not some abstract theological or philosophical musing, but a question that eats away at a person's soul. I've heard it asked. I know people who couldn't see an answer and have stopped looking for any god who could provide one.

Some will even go so far as to try and turn this into a pseudo-philosophical proof against the existence of God. A loving and omnipotent god simply cannot exist over this world of pain. This god is either not really all-loving or not really all-powerful; otherwise god would put a stop to the suffering.

For Christians, this move is just bologna. We can talk about that if you want—that’s what the comment section is for—but that’s not the point I want to make here. Instead, here I want to show why this tension that so many feel between the Christianity’s claims about God and the realities of life is, it seems to me, such an odd tension. It makes for a poignant argument, but I think it deeply misunderstands the biblical account of God's redemptive work.

From the very beginning to the very end, the Christian story of redemption tells us about a God defying--warring against!--the powers of death. God's saving work among humans almost doesn't get off the ground at all because of a woman with a dead womb. Sarah and Abraham are going to pass away and leave no one and no promise behind them. But the God who called Abraham will not let death have the last say. He gives them Isaac.

This same God sees the loss and despair of the chosen people living under foreign military might, after an underwhelming return to their homeland after long and painful exile, and offers them a vision of consolation: not an abstract peace or comfort, but a world made right: "I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime..." As this vision unfolds, we see equity in societies, animals that no longer tear one another apart for survival, an end to hurt and destruction (Isa 65:17-25). God intends to make all things new, to set to right all the wrongs in our world.

And this same God came into the world, Jesus of Nazareth, to confront once and for all the powers of darkness. He came to bring good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind, release to the oppressed, and wholeness to lepers (Luke 4:16ff; 7:20ff)--to realize, finally, the blessing Israel was meant to bring to the world all along. He underwent a brutal execution so that the life of his resurrection might come to all people. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead! For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor 15:21-22). This God simply will not ever let death have the last say.
This is the God of the Bible.

Michael Ruse, an atheist philosopher and author, makes the same point. After describing how, in the Darwinian view of the world, violence and death are such important and pervasive realities, he goes on to say:

As Dawkins shows powerfully, Darwinism stresses the natural evil in the world. It does not explain it, but it opens the way to the Christian response... if you are a Darwinian looking for religious meaning, then Christianity is a religion which speaks to you. Right at its centre there is a suffering god, Jesus on the Cross. This is not some contingent part of the faith, but the very core of everything. God is not some impersonal Unmoved Mover, who has little concern with the creation and who feels none of the joys and travails of the earthly creatures... Darwinism, a science which so stresses physical suffering, looks to Christianity, a religion which so stresses physical suffering and the divine urge to master it.

Ruse sees clearly what so many have (somehow) missed: God is not removed from--much less unconcerned with!--the horrors of our world. Nor has God sought to redeem them from a safe distance: instead, our Lord underwent suffering and loss and death itself so that Creation might ultimately be delivered from these powers.

I suspect that those Christians for whom the realities of pain and suffering and death are the end of faith—those Christians haven’t been told the whole story. They have heard a gospel about heaven and hell, a gospel concerned above all with the two big ‘S’s: sin and souls. When these people come face to face with something in this world that they know, deep down, is truly evil—something like Alzheimer’s—and their god of sin and souls has nothing to say to this evil, doesn’t even seem to care about it at all, everything comes crumbling down. They’ve been given a truncated gospel. It may have some truth to it, but it’s not whole; in the end, it’s just not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims that, in the end, God himself will come to dwell among us, he will wipe every tear away, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Rev 21:3-4)--that God will swallow up death forever (Isa 25:8)!

Or, if you prefer John Donne: "Death, thou shalt die."

That is the gospel. It is the story of a God who has been trying to speak a blessing over a people laboring under a curse since that fruit in the Garden. It is the story of a God who knows about the power of death firsthand, and who absolutely refuses to let this power reign over his creation. It's about a God who is trying to heal a world stained by death--the world we all know so well. It is precisely to this world of Alzheimer's and hunger and sudden infant death syndrome and napalm that the gospel speaks a word of life: "I am making all things new."

This "God" that so many grow tired of, the one who doesn't do anything in the face of the world's pain--I don't believe in him either. The God the Church proclaims, the God we know in Jesus, doesn't leave me with questions and doubts in the face of suffering. This God leaves me with hope that the world doesn't have to be this way and a calling to live towards this hope, to make my life a foretaste for others, right now, in this world, of the justice, peace, and goodness of God's coming kingdom.

The tension so many feel between a God of love and a world of suffering seems so strange to me because this is the God we're talking about.


danielhixon said...

I think you are very perceptive in seeing how people despair when they encounter true natural evil because they haven't heard the whole story; haven't grasped what it means for God to "take on himself" our darkness in Christ.

Of course in reaction to the incomplete version of the Gospel, some Chrsitians have swung the opposite way and proclaimed a God who doesn't care a bit about "sin and souls" either - which would be just as false.

It does seem odd though that people would get so disillusioned by evil that they reject God and instead embrace a theory of natural selection in which everything good is driven by a continuous cycle of competition and death. Isn't that essentially embracing the very thing that drove you to despair in the first place? It seems like there is an emotional contradiction there, if not a logical contradiction: "My dead child which was such a horror that it drove me from faith is, under my new philosophy, part of the "progress" of evolution." See what I mean?

Nance said...

I doubt that many people, when struggling with these questions, decide "I will now adopt a system in which everything is driven by a continuous cycle of competition and death." I could be wrong, but I assume a lot of people who reject Christianity have a more or less disinterested atheism/agnosticism--they just stop thinking about these issues all together. Of course for some folks, that's probably a legitimate question to raise. Perhaps the second option gives you a sense of some emotional freedom: now I don't have to deal with an apparent, painful betrayal by my philosophy while also dealing with my loss.