Once again, David Bentley Hart on suffering

September 6, 2011

In my previous post, I recommended David Bentley Hart’s book on theodicy to Trevin Wax. That book grew out of this essay that Hart wrote in the wake of 2005’s St. Stephen’s Day tsunami. I just re-read the essay, and it’s as powerful as I remember. Hart attacks the hyper-Calvinist view that the end of history will justify its means. No matter the evil, we will see in retrospect that it was really for our own good, and that without it, life in God’s kingdom wouldn’t be as sweet.

One key to understanding Hart’s line of reasoning is the traditional Christian understanding of evil: It is not something in and of itself; it is the absence of something—specifically, the absence of good. With that in mind, Hart writes, evil “can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness.” He continues:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

 

One Response to “Once again, David Bentley Hart on suffering”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Quite a thought-provoking piece. I agree God does not need sin or evil to accomplish his plans. Instead, his plans rather take into account what the sinful hearts of men would be like and planned around that–he could as well have planned differently if our hearts had been different. At least that is my view. But, I think the Bible does suggest that natural calamities do come from God, especially in the Old Testament. Again, that is not to say it HAD to be that way in the abstract, but it is PROPERLY that way because of who we are. Perhaps I am a “quasi Calvinist” and “quasi Methodist”! I absolutely believe God does not make us make our choices, but I simultaneously believe he formed the universe around what types of decisions he knew we would make (and for whatever other purposes he may have had as well–I don’t think the farthest reaches of the galaxies were necessarily for our benefit). I am not saying there is some “one-to-one correspondence” between particular sins and particular catastrophes. But I think God does have some “purpose” in the events that occur. What other option would we prefer? That we could be crushed “at random”? That God does not know “the day of our death”? That someone could go to hell rather than heaven based on some accidental occurrence which took her away a “moment too soon”? I would rather believe that God’s way is “in the whirlwind and the storm,” Nahum 1:3b (NIV), than that my fate lies in the “hands” of the “elements” capriciously or unguided (much less in the hands of the “enemy”).


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