Busy week! Please pray for me as I finish writing, revising, and compiling my ordination papers, which are due in a couple of weeks. I will post last Sunday’s sermon in the next few days, but I wanted to first point out an op-ed article from the New York Times entitled, “Between God and a Hard Place,” written by James Wood.
This was going to be a short response, but it became longer than I intended. I don’t mean to suggest below that I know the answer to the problem Wood discusses. But—geez!—I know I’m closer than he is. He doesn’t even try to look for one.
Wood begins by giving a very brief history of theodicy—the “justification of God’s good government of the world in the face of evil and pain”—in the modern era. He makes the mistake of so many modern intellectuals, assuming that, prior to 1750 or so, gullible believers, in thrall as they were to the Church and superstitious religious beliefs, failed to notice that bad stuff inexplicably happened to good and innocent people. Apparently, we didn’t become “enlightened” to the reality of suffering and evil until then. People were so naive back in the Dark Ages!
Spare me! That’s just the propaganda of modernity. See my post related to both Job and Luke 13:1-5 here. In the Luke passage, Jesus explicitly says that these deadly instances of human and natural evil were not punishment for sin. Where in this passage is Wood’s “punitive and interventionist” God, whose existence, he asserts with such great authority, the Bible supports? What about Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45)?
The Bible hardly speaks with a single voice on the subject of evil and suffering in the world. But I hasten to add that this is completely understandable. The writers of the Bible, often separated in time from one another, asked and sought answers to different questions in different eras. Obviously, the questions they faced in their own time are not identically equal to the questions we face in ours. This is why we ought to read the Bible carefully and in context. This is why we ought to avoid proof-texting verses here and there. This is why we look for broad, overarching themes. This is why we first interpret difficult passages of scripture in light of other scripture. This is why we stand the shoulders of very smart Christian saints who’ve gone before us and wrestled with many of the same questions for 2,000 years. This is why we have theology, which seeks to answer, among other things, how we make sense of all these disparate voices in scripture.
The Bible doesn’t speak with one voice, but it does explicitly identifiy evil and death as God’s enemies, not as God’s allies (see 1 Corinthians 15, especially vv. 26 and 54-57). We Christians already know that, apart from Christ, death mocks all our hopes and dreams. It steals our human potential. It robs our world of meaning. Our Christian hope, however, is that God has dealt a fatal blow to these enemies through the cross of Christ and his resurrection (whose final victory will be made manifest on the other side of our resurrection). Without resurrection, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, we are “most to be pitied.”
Wood got my attention by quoting John Wesley, who (apparently) wrote, “There is no divine visitation which is likely to have so general an influence upon sinners as an earthquake.” I don’t doubt that Wesley saw God’s hand at work in natural disasters. But we can see God’s hand at work in natural disasters without imagining God giving nature a nudge on the plane of causation: God pushes X, which interacts with Y, which then causes Z. God may instead allow X, Y, and Z to interact with one another freely, governed by the predictable laws of physics. While these interactions more often than not produce favorable outcomes for humans, like sunny and mild spring days, for instance, they sometimes produce earthquakes. It’s possible that in order to live in a predictable world—one in which gravity, for example, always works for us—you can’t have one without the other. I don’t know…
But we don’t have to believe that God caused it or that God needed it to happen in order to believe that God can bring good from it—which is another way of saying that God can use it for God’s purposes (see Romans 8:28). (That God can use human or natural evil for God’s purposes is often what thinkers like Wood mistake in the Bible for God’s causing evil.) That God can use it or bring good from it doesn’t mean that the scales of justice are balanced, either. It doesn’t make the Haiti earthquake “worth it” in any way imaginable. That doesn’t happen on this side of resurrection. It can’t!
Bad, unimaginably evil stuff happens in our world, and God permits it for whatever reason. God seems to grant complete freedom to everything in the universe, and that freedom comes at a terrible cost. But that is not the end of the story. The end of the story is God’s redeeming love—which is the overarching theme of scripture.
Maybe we most clearly see God’s hand at work in natural disasters when people from all over the world give of themselves to help, even at the risk of their own lives. After all, contrary to Wood’s assertion that “history’s lonely suffering” suggests a God who is “absent,” we Christians proclaim a God who so closely identifies and is present with victims of suffering that he becomes one of them.