the darkness is my closest friend
And there the Psalm ends. There is no happy ending, no resolution, and no word of comfort from God. Yet the Psalm remains in the Bible. It is not there to silence the questioning of God, but it legitimises it. It is a completed text, and yet the question remains unanswered and the accusation of God remains. It is perfectly legitimate to question God, and it is wrong and wholly unbiblical to forbid the questioning of God. Jesus’ final words continue the theodicy as he cries from the cross: ‘My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?’
Why does God forsake us? Why does Christianity maintain that God loves us yet all the while we are surrounded by a pain and suffering that is in total contradiction to his nature?
Some wrong approaches
Wherever the Bible deals with suffering, it is dealt with pastorally and not as a systematic treatise on where evil came from, or how an all-powerful God who is all loving allows bad things to happen. Any genuinely Christian response will be first of all pastoral and practical, and not abstract. People who suffer and ask ‘where is God?’ are not concerned with abstract answers and intellectual platitudes.
This is the first mistake that Christians often make. The first reaction to a huge disaster is to attribute it to the judgment of God. Why? Jesus speaks of earthquakes, wars and famines preceding his return, and so as soon as these things occur, all the pious souls in Christendom look forward to their forthcoming redemption from this fallen world.
This is disastrous, and why? Because it means that when faced with a natural disaster, an ecological crisis, poverty, war and famine, Christians simply retreat from the problem and do not engage in alleviating it or bother to lift a finger to prevent it happening again. After all, the End will soon come, so why delay it any further? I would not deny that Jesus said natural disasters would be a sign of his coming, but we misunderstand the nature of signs and wonders. They are not foreboding omens of an imminent destruction of the world, time and space out of which God will rescue his chosen ones. They are to point enslaved, oppressed and downtrodden people to a coming future Hope. Just as the signs and wonders Moses performed before Pharaoh and Egypt heralded the coming freedom of the Israelite slaves, so the signs and wonders Jesus performed and prophesied about do not point towards an escape from History for the elect, but rather they are the ‘birth pangs’ of the New Creation that God has promised, where death, suffering and evil will have been annihilated. The onus on Christians then is not to huddle together and shrug their shoulders in the face of disaster, but to do everything they can to help those afflicted by it. We are to anticipate the Kingdom of God and prepare for its coming, as John the Baptist did of old.
The second wrong approach that Christians all too often take when faced with suffering is to attribute it to sin. True enough, the Auschwitzes and Rwandas of history are caused by human evil, but how are we to relate human sin and wrongdoing to massive tidal waves that kill tens of thousands of people, including children? My first serious questioning of God’s character came after reading a holocaust autobiography Night by Elie Wiesel. How does God allow 6 million people to die in gas chambers whilst insisting that he loves the world? A friend of mine claimed to have the answer: ‘It’s easy’, he said, ‘they had obviously sinned and were being punished.’ I suggested that this failed to explain how many of those killed were children or the unborn. My friend again had his answer ready: ‘Original sin of course. We all have it, God punishes it. End of story.’
Yes, a Christian actually said that, though without explaining original sin, or how the cross might affect this or what it says about the character of God if he consents to the killing of children without mercy.
Christians of course like to have an answer for everything. If there is such a huge incidence of suffering, it is either a sign of the end in which case we’d better get packing for heaven, or the suffering is an act of punishment committed by God in which case we shouldn’t do anything to alleviate it in case he turns on us as well. As stupid as it may seem, a well-known American preacher recently appealed to some churches in the States to help fund his work with AIDS victims in Africa. They all refused on the basis that they saw AIDS as God’s judgment on the sexually immoral, and so would do nothing to help them. I for one am glad that Jesus did not and does not treat sinners in the same way.
Atheism and the character of God
The problem of evil and suffering still gives much ammunition to those who are atheists. At the risk of doing a slight injustice to any atheists who might read this blog, let me give a generic outline of atheist arguments against the existence of God in the face of suffering.
1. God is good
2. God is all powerful
3. God is all knowing
4. God is everywhere
5. Being good and loving, he does not want anyone to suffer.
6. Being all knowing and all powerful, he is aware of suffering and able to prevent it happening.
7. Suffering and evil exist, so either God is unable to intervene and thus is not all-powerful, or he is able to intervene but does not, in which case he is not all-loving, or more likely he does not exist.
8. God does not exist, or if he does he is impotent.
And so the argument goes, and every time it comes out Christians everywhere leap to defend God as the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God of the Universe. Such arguments are well-intended, but how useful can they be? Why do Christians appeal to the classical theistic arguments as a defence of God? I am not suggesting that God is not any of these things, but the categories of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence are primarily Greek metaphysical categories and not necessarily Jewish and Biblical categories. I think that Christians often spend a lot of time defending a god of classical theism rather than God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is held by Christians to be the image (literally ‘icon’) of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15.) So if we want to talk about God, we have to begin with him and not with metaphysics. If we simply decide for ourselves what God is like, we simply vindicate the accusation that every atheist since Feuerbach has made – that Christians just project their human needs and aspirations onto a figure they call God, and so God is simply a crutch to lean on or a projection of what we would like to be. To counter this, we need to understand God as he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ, and not make him what we wish him to be.
So what does Jesus reveal about God? That God is a cruel inhuman tyrant? That he willingly contrives to kill the innocent by means of natural disasters? That he does not care and is unmoved by the plight of humanity? None of these things are revealed in Jesus.
Jesus participates fully in human suffering. He lives in poverty and lives in an occupied country. He is rejected, arrested, denied a fair trial, tortured, beaten, whipped, mocked, betrayed, abandoned and finally crucified in one of the most painful deaths imaginable. That’s why I chose the picture I have done for this blog entry. The Christian God is not a faceless and absentee deity; he is one who participates in all the sufferings and afflictions of humanity. God does not exist over and against us; he is for us and with us.
If God were simply as classical theism has painted him to be, then atheism on the grounds of suffering would be legitimate. However, God is found in Jesus Christ, who died a torturous and godforsaken death and is then well-acquainted with human misery and suffering. He is then our companion in suffering by virtue of shared experience and so one to whom we can appeal, and the case for protest atheism loses its power. In any case, atheism does not offer a solution to the problem of suffering as evil and suffering still remain, and neither can it offer any real hope in the face of death and disaster.
A way ahead?
There is no systematic answer I am able to give that could completely explain suffering and evil, and ignore anyone who says the have the answer, especially if they’re waving biblical proof-texts around. I believe however, that there is a way forward for Christians that allows the questioning of God to remain, and commits itself to loving action towards to world whilst maintaining the credibility of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ death-cry on the cross of ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ was followed a few days later by his resurrection. He died a dark and lonely death, but God raised him to life in the resurrection. Jesus triumphed over Death, sin and all the evil systems that had conspired to kill him. The resurrection is not just a nice ending to a sad story, but in Christian thought it becomes a sign and a promise that eventually everything that is held under the power of death, pain and suffering will be liberated and made new. As the Apostle Paul said, the resurrection is a prototype example showing that eventually all of death will be ‘swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15). In the Christian faith, the same God who raises Jesus to life has also promised that in the future he will ‘make all things new’ and there will be no more mourning, weeping, suffering or death. This is the content of Christian hope, and the direction towards which Jesus Christ points us.
For Christians then, identifying with Jesus does not excuse our absence and inactivity in the face of world suffering. It means doing what he did and going where he went. It means that we do not ignore the reality of the awful floods that happened on Sunday. We cry, mourn, question and become angry. We embrace the world as it is in all its brokenness and do not cover it up with sweetness and niceties. Nevertheless, just as Jesus identified with real suffering and death on the cross, so he has made possible a new future free from death and pain that we are invited to participate in by faith in him. It is a faith that recognizes the mess the world is in but lovingly gives of itself in service and healing in anticipation of the fulfillment of the hope that Jesus has set out for us as we join in his protest at and defeat of the powers of death, loss and suffering.
If you read this far, well done and thank you for sticking with it. There are of course many problems with my position as there are with any, but I would welcome any feedback, either negative or positive.