Salvation 2.0: Part 3.12: David Bentley Hart’s “God, Creation, and Evil,” Part 5

grace5N. T. Wright on God’s solution for evil

I read N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God a few years ago, and I was disappointed. I just didn’t find the answers very satisfying.

After all, I’m a chronic-pain suffering person. I don’t know pain nearly as many around the world do. I mean, there are many who would justifiably envy my situation, bad back and all. But I do know pain.

But I was still hoping for a magic cure. But there’s no magic in Christianity. And it took me some time to see the profundity of what Wright says.

The theological question which underlies this dilemma can be simply put: how can it be possible, let alone right, for God to bring about a situation where all is genuinely well, and all manner of thing is truly well, granted all that has happened and, God help us, continues to happen? [JFG: Exactly: bad things really happen to good people. How could God have made a world wherein that happens?]

This is the problem faced by the author of the book of Revelation in the majestic throne-room scene in chapters 4 and 5. The four living creatures are singing ‘Holy, holy, holy’, and the elders are casting their crowns before the throne; but the one who sits on the throne holds a scroll written inside and outside, sealed with seven seals, and nobody can be found worthy to open it and break its seals.

The way to God’s unfolding purposes to put the world to rights, to complete the whole project of creation, appears to be blocked, since God has made the world in such a way that it must be looked after by human stewards, and no human being is capable of taking God’s plan forward. This is Revelation’s statement of the problem of evil: God has a plan for the world; but unless he is to unmake creation itself, which is designed to function through the stewardship of God’s image-bearing creatures, the human race, it looks as though the plan cannot come to fruition. And this is Revelation’s statement of the answer: the Lamb has conquered, has defeated the powers of evil, and now (Revelation 5:9–10) the Lamb has ransomed people from every nation in order to make them a royal priesthood, serving God and reigning upon the earth. [JFG: Really? The church is going to make things better? Has God met these people?]

This theme, so frequent in the New Testament and so widely ignored in Christian theology, is part of the solution to the problem. It isn’t that the cross has won the victory, so there’s nothing more to be done. Rather, the cross has won the victory as a result of which there are now redeemed human beings getting ready to act as God’s wise agents, his stewards, constantly worshipping their creator and constantly, as a result, being equipped to reflect his image into his creation, to bring his wise and healing order to the world, putting the world to rights under his just and gentle rule.

A truly biblical ecclesiology [doctrine of how to do church] should not focus so much on the fact that the church is the community of the saved, but on the fact that the church is the community of those who, being redeemed through the cross, are now to be a kingdom and priests to serve God and to reign on the earth. Our fear of triumphalism on the one hand, and our flattening out of our final destiny into talk merely of ‘going to heaven’, have combined to rob us of this central biblical theme. But until we put it back where it belongs we won’t see how the New Testament ultimately offers a solution to the problem of evil.

God, then, will put the world to rights, and will do so in a manner consistent with the design and plan of creation from the beginning. And now it should become apparent that God’s action in Jesus, to redeem a people for himself and to set them in authority over the world, leaves God, so to speak, in the clear. Having defeated evil on the cross, God has put evil in a position where it cannot for ever blackmail him. I first met this theme in C. S. Lewis’s remarkable book The Great Divorce, where he gives his hero George MacDonald a speaking part, and has him explain how it cannot be the case that someone who ultimately rejects the love and mercy of God can hold God’s new world to ransom.

Our culture has gone even further down the road of moral illiteracy since Lewis’s day, and the only moral high ground we now recognize is that occupied by the victim, or someone who claims to be a victim; so we instinctively feel sorry for someone who’s left out of the party, someone who doesn’t yet seem persuaded that there’s an answer to their problems, someone who has not managed yet to abandon their pride and accept the free forgiveness offered in the gospel. Grand-sounding statements of universalism are offered on this basis: it cannot be right, we are told, for the redeemed to enjoy their heaven as long as one soul is left in hell. Of course, by thus appealing to our sense of feeling sorry for the one left outside the party we put that person in a position of peculiar power, able to exercise in perpetuity a veto on the triumph of grace. [JFG: This is a very good point. I’m sorry that the Jews suffered the Holocaust, but they are not the most sympathetic group in this discussion. After all, the Jews in Europe knew about Jesus and rejected him. They don’t deserve perpetual, conscious torment, but why do they deserve heaven, having reject YHWH in the flesh? A far stronger case can be made of the Chinese under Mao who were starved, beat, and quite literally worked into the grave — and who never heard of Jesus.]

The old phrase for that is ‘dog-in-the-manger’: someone who isn’t enjoying the feast themselves but is determined to prevent anyone else enjoying it either. The apparent right of evil, evil of all sorts, evil past and present, to stand there in the corporate memory and declare that it is impossible for God’s new world to be perfectly good because this deficit, this outstanding moral debt, has not yet been paid—this apparent right is overthrown on the one hand by the cross, which has defeated the powers of evil, and on the other hand by God’s creation of a new world which will bring healing, rather than obliteration, to the old one, under the stewardship of the redeemed. God’s offer of forgiveness, consequent upon his defeat of evil on the cross, means that God himself, the wise creator, is at last vindicated. [JFG: So the challenging case are those who’ve never heard of Jesus, not those who’ve rejected Jesus and suffered in this life.]

(This, by the way, is why genuine Christian theology is itself a redemptive activity; the effort to understand and articulate the way in which the creator is gloriously right both to have made the world in the first place and to have redeemed it in just this way is itself part of the stewardly vocation of genuine human existence, bringing God’s order into the minds and hearts of others and thereby enabling people both to worship the true God and to serve his continuing purposes.)

And so Wright rejects the Universal Reconciliation argument that all must eventually be saved so that the Jews who died in the Holocaust may be saved — along with Hitler.

He then turns to the nature of salvation: in particular, the necessity that the saved forgive as they’ve been forgiven, so that they may be released from the misery of unforgiven sins suffered —

Thus, just as when we offer genuine forgiveness to someone else we are no longer conditioned by the evil that they have done, even if they refuse to accept this forgiveness and so continue in a state of enmity, so when God offers genuine forgiveness to his sinful creatures he is no longer conditioned by the evil they have done, even if they refuse to accept his forgiveness. Otherwise the grouch, the sulker, the Prodigal Son’s older brother, occupies the implicit moral high ground for ever. This does not explain, as I said, the origin of evil. But it does, I think, help us to understand how it will be that, when God makes the promised new world, there will be no shadow of past evil to darken the picture.

That’s all very well, you say. God may forgive evil done in the past; but the evil was done to the Jews in the Holocaust, to the murdered man and his family, to the rape victim, the family decimated by a drunk driver, the relatives of those killed by a terrorist bomb. What right has God to say that this evil can somehow be wiped away, so that it appears not to exist any more? Is this not simply another way of belittling evil, making it appear that it isn’t really as important as all that? And what right has God to say that he forgives the offender when it is Joe Smith, not God, who has really been hurt?

This is where I have a further proposal to make, which needs to be understood in the light of the very precise meaning of forgiveness for which I am arguing throughout this chapter. Just as in God’s new world all his people will have passed beyond death, disease, decay and so forth, so that their new resurrection bodies will be incapable of any such thing, so their moral, thinking, cognitive, affective selves will also be renewed. And, in that renewal, they will be enabled fully and finally to forgive all the evil done to them, so that they, too, will no longer be affected or infected by it. [JFG: That is, for believers to be truly saved and freed from evil and suffering, they must be enabled, by the Spirit, to truly forgive — because until we forgive, we are trapped in misery by the person who sinned against us.]

This takes, of course, a pretty large leap of the imagination for most of us even in our own relatively uninjured lives; when we imagine some of the morally, physically and emotionally outrageous sufferings of people around the world over the last century, it may seem an impossible dream. Yet it is precisely the outworking of the promise of resurrection itself—which of course appears incredible to those who simply study the world of decay and death, and forget the Lord of life who lived among us and died and rose again. Just as physical decay and death will have no power over our resurrection bodies, so the moral decay and dissolution threatened by the persistent presence of evil—the gnawing resentment, the unscratchable itch of jealousy or anger, which are the moral and spiritual equivalents of physical decay and disease—will have no power over our emotional or moral lives in the world to come.

We are, in fact, called to be people of forgiveness in the present because that is the life we shall be living in the future; more about that anon. But the point (and this is really the central point of this book, the ultimate answer to this aspect at least of the problem of evil) is not only that, in the new world, God himself will be beyond the reach of the moral blackmail of unresolved evil, but that we shall be as well. ‘Sin will not have dominion over you,’ wrote Paul in Romans 6:14; and this can function as a promise not only about our present moral life but our ultimate future bliss. This is how we shall be delivered from evil, how the Lord’s Prayer will finally be answered.

N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006), 90–93 (paragraphing modified; emphasis mine).

This bears reading and re-reading. The saved will be saved from all evil of every kind. And this requires that they follow the example of Jesus and forgive all evil of every kind.

And so, Jesus came to earth to rescue us from sin — and its consequences, such as pain and suffering. But not everyone chooses to accept that offer — and they will not be empowered by the Spirit to forgive or granted admission to the new heavens and new earth. Rather, they will cease to exist.

Will they be punished? Who wouldn’t we expect God to punish the Hitlers of this world? But what about his victims? Will they, like the pre-resurrection Gentiles, merely cease to exist? Or will they be punished — justly — and then cease to exist?

Well, once we decide to trust God to be truly just, we really have no complaint if what he does is in fact just! If what he does for someone else — like the Prodigal Son — is better than just, then that’s God’s business, and we still have no right to complain, as the older brother did.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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34 Responses to Salvation 2.0: Part 3.12: David Bentley Hart’s “God, Creation, and Evil,” Part 5

  1. Richard constant says:

    Hi J
    just like I said it’s all your fault and Becks.

  2. Richard constant says:

    I’ll take the moral high ground here I forgive you
    TWO

    I’m going to stop now, because I could keep going on that one,
    That one Perspective is too funny…..

  3. Richard constant says:

    We could kind of look at it like this Kinda like I’m a rabbit and I’ve been digging these holes for a long time and most of them are skewed.
    you know deviated from God’s good

  4. Richard constant says:

    I think that word deviated, by the way is a good word it used in Colossians somewhere you can look it up and toward the end of Romans 5.
    and then there’s always Alice’s Restaurant!
    and Those stinking glossy pictures!
    🙂
    for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about,
    lucky you.
    for those that would like to know sorta kinda.
    Arlo Guthrie
    Alice’s Restaurant the long version.
    YouTube YouTube YouTube has everything

  5. Richard constant says:

    How can we possibly preach God’s gospel Teach God’s gospel.
    Unless we are free and free indeed.
    I think I’ll go back to the Romans 6 on that.
    Reciprocating what we’ve been given.
    But then how are we going to reciprocate unless were taught right.
    Then we’ve got those flatworlder teachers.
    That play on a ballpark of their own making, Called Sophistry.
    and then of course we have to drive into Romans 8.
    Where we have the intuitive inner direction of God’s Spirit. and we sure don’t want to put that together with Romans chapter 4 verse 13
    And and then of course we’ve got to put into perspective what the Spirit is saying in the Hebrew letter.
    Around chapter 5 exercising our mind in the word of righteousness to learn what.
    God’s good and the difference of evil.
    those are just things were supposed to know.
    And act on.
    well I’m at the Sunny Hills Church of Christ in Fullerton J the progressive one.
    Boy oh boy. at least I don’t feel like I’m such a square block trying to get through a round hole here.
    Randy’s very good after talking with him for about an hour last week.
    and a very good sense of humor too.
    And that’s a big compared to what.
    blessings this morning big kid

  6. Christopher says:

    The problem with human suffering is not having to suffer for some length of time, but with God not delivering people who cry out to Him. Why is that a problem? Because the scriptures are replete with examples of Him doing just that. That is one of the reasons David gave for loving God. John, in his first letter, asks how the love of God be in a man who sees his brother in need but has no pity for his situation and does nothing to help him. I have often asked “How can the love of God be in God” when he “keeps putting off” those who need His help? The Book of Job gives us few answers. Consider how much Job suffered. God’s response to him was essentially to ask “What do you know, really?”. It was not like that of the father of the prodigal son who tried to reason with his eldest, resentful son. If God is unwilling or unable to heal people who cry out to Him (as in Psalm 107) after a time, then why would anyone ask Him for anything else? I mean, that is an argument from the greater to the lesser, used often in the Scriptures. I think all other so-called problems of evil would vanish if we all knew the solution was mercy from God in time of need. I mean, if pain is (as C.S. Lewis argued) God’s megaphone, why shout at people if you aren’t going to heal or help them when they turn to you? Isn’t THAT the point of suffering – to get people to turn back to God? Wasn’t it the point of the famine in the parable of the prodigal son? Wasn’t that the point of what Isreal suffered time and again? Wasn’t that the point of Naman having leprosy? Wasn’t that the point of the man being born blind in John 9?
    Just my two cents worth. Instead of “apologists” in debates arguing for the existence of God and so forth, they should realize that THIS is the question that really needs to be answered – the one that is really behind their atheistic opponents arguments about pain and suffering disproving the His existence.

  7. Monty says:

    God knows a thing or two about suffering. He entered our world of woes. Jesus was called a man of sorrows. God hasn’t turned his back on man whether he heals all of our diseases or not. He moved into the neighborhood in an effort to save man from his biggest problem-sin. God took pity on his enemies. He loved his enemies so much that he sent his son, not only as ambassador, but also as the Savior for his enemies. There isn’t a greater love story in all of human writ like the Gospel. Would any of us sacrifice and expose a child of ours to abuse they never deserved for even a friend , much less an enemy? God did that. The rest we’ll understand better by and by.

  8. Larry Cheek says:

    We worry and cry about suffering because God does not answer every prayer for it to be removed. Yet, this suffering and pain which was endured by faithful martyrs refusing the opportunity for it to be removed by denying their Lord, was the most powerful tool used by Christians to show the value they contributed to God. Many became believers because of their dedication.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    It really is a unique how man automatically counts victims of mass destruction as undeserving that justice. As we read the scriptures God many times performed that very act himself, he destroyed all but 8 of mankind, he opened up the earth and swallowed many thousands of disobedient of the Israelite Nation, he used the Israelite Nation to destroy complete nations who were in total rebellion to him. Then we count all of the Jews in the Holocaust as victims, treated unjustly. If this action was an action in which God was administering his justice, just like administered to other nations, what would he think of us as his servants showing our distaste for his actions? What did he tell the Israelite people about their feelings for those whom he had punished?

    Just a thought. As we see The Jews who were killed and have so much compassion for them, should we not also consider their relationship to Christ, The Son of God?

  10. Larry Cheek says:

    As we consider the “conditional view” of God’s creation, these Jews would be just like “Rover”. No different than the animals of the world. God knew they would never be converted to his Son.

  11. Mark says:

    Larry,
    I read your comments a few times before responding and toned down my response. As someone with Jewish family members, I see things differently. In fact, I see Christianity differently than most people. I learned more about Christianity from the Jews than the Christians in how to act, treat others, conduct business, love your enemies, etc. The parables taught by Jesus made it into the Jewish people. Yes, some of the rabbis had some strange interpretations of the scriptures but so did some of the early church fathers and even some modern scholars. I have never really understood all this about the relationship of people to Christ. Simply, Gentiles could be grafted in to the fold and pray through Jesus, the long-promised Jewish Messiah. However, the Jews were always the chosen people even though most did not see Jesus as the Messiah. Through massacres, the destruction of two temples, and the Holocaust, many stayed faithful to God even while wondering if they had been forsaken. Even Jesus verbally wondered the same thing from the cross.

    Now, IMHO it would be beneficial for the cofC to remember the Christian martyrs and their faith instead of forgetting about them and constantly preaching on Paul and his letters. Sometimes it is recalling the faith of the martyrs that reminds the rest of us to hang in there.

  12. Christopher says:

    Monty,
    I hate to say it, but you sound a lot like Job’s friends – offering pat, ignorant answers to what is ostensibly a logical contradiction. I mean, even Abraham recognized there was a logical problem with being asked to sacrifice the very son through whom he was to become the father of many nations. And he resolved it by reasoning that God would raise him from the dead. Asking for good health – the very thing John prayed for Gaius is NOT like selfishly asking for (in Janis Joplin’s words) a Mercedes Benz. It’s more like widows asking for food or shelter or clothing. God not answering those kind of prayers is indeed problematic.

  13. Dwight says:

    The Jews were God’s chosen people because God chose the father of the nation and the lineage that followed to be the bearer of the chosen one or Jesus. God at times had wanted to wipe out all of Israel and start over, but to wipe out Israel would have been to wipe out the final promise “that all nations should be blessed”. This was a promise before Israel was formed as a nation. The promise secured Israel as a nation and secured the Gentiles as well that would be under God’s blessing.

  14. Dwight says:

    IT is right to ask of God for our health and it is right of God to deny or give as well. God never promised us good health, but promised us a good life after our health fails. Paul was said to have had bad eyesight and it is possible that Paul asked to be relieved, but God didn’t heal him and Paul learned lessons from this. Jesus asked that the “cup” be passed from him, but God had a plan and Jesus death was part of that plan, but God didn’t get on to Jesus for making the request.

  15. Monty says:

    Christopher,

    I’m sorry to disappoint you so with my “ignorant” answer, for who can match your wisdom? I don’t think I’m like Job’s friends who all assumed he had committee some egregious sin and that was the why of why he was suffering. Job of course like all of us wanted an answer from God why he was suffering when he had done no wrong. Isn’t that your main concern? Why do good people suffer or at least why doesn’t God come to their rescue always? Job felt sure that if he could plead his case before God, (there must be some kind of mistake) that God would in essence would have to apologize to Job for bringing calamity upon him. God of course never for one minute offers any type of apology and in fact rebukes Job for daring to bring charge against God. “who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?” “Will the one who accuses God answer him!” “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” Job’s reply would be our reply would it not, given a conversation with the Almighty- “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, thing too wonderful for me to know.” I seriously doubt that either one of us is as wise and intelligent as Job was, so it can’t be about intellectual giftedness. If God has to match wits with the intellectuals in order to save them then he messed up with the gospel, for it was “foolishness to the Gentiles” and a “stumbling block to the Jew.’

    We are in a way like commenters on blogs who feel empowered because we can sit behind our computers and say things and express ourselves in ways we wouldn’t ordinarily respond to a person in person, but we would never question God, like we do on a blog, to his face. No, we demand answers, right? The way I see it, we have a couple of choices. We can look at suffering and judge God for allowing it to continue or we can trust God that even when our prayers aren’t answered in a way that suffices us that we bring no charge against God because we, like Job, aren’t privy to God’s reasoning and God’s purposes. That’s not to say that when tragedy or sickness comes to us or someone we love that we don’t cry out at the injustice we feel or even experience a “Why me” moment, but that, in the end, we realize there are only 2 main options: 1. “curse God and die” – isn’t that the human nature Satan spoke of when he challenged God about Job?-for him(God) being as we humans see it-capricious and un-Godly for allowing the evil, or 2. Realize that as awful and terrible that pain and suffering are and that God doesn’t always remove the cancer or keep us from tragedies, that these things are bigger than us, and above our pay grade to discern and that we have no right in the end to lay blame on God. We often speak of things “too wonderful for our understanding” and in the end can’t see the forest because it’s obscured for all those trees. 🙂

  16. Christopher says:

    Monty,
    Thanks for the thoughtful response, but I don’t think you or some of the others here are being intellectually honest. You will find Jesus and God throughout the Scriptures appealing to our reason but, then, when experience doesn’t square with what is implicitly promised by God, people want to slough it off by saying things like “we will understand it better by and by” or “who can comprehend the mind of God?”. The Scriptures say that Abraham had to reason his way to faith and, once he did, God gave a clear answer (is not the appearance of an angel a clear answer?). Look, if Psalm 107 is not an implicit promise of deliverence from God when people cry out to Him, then what is it? Why is in even in the Old Testament? To pour salt on the wounds of poor blokes who are not delivered by announcing what God has done for some but not them? Think about that: why is it there?
    I have always thought there was something really missing in the church and that is answer to prayer. I cannot tell you how many unanswered prayers I have witnessed. Think about it: we are enjoined to pray without ceasing, to ask so that we may receive. To what end, if God does not reliably answer prayer? David prayed and sat back in expectation. Answers to prayer simply have to be more than a coincidental turn of events for the better; they have to be unequivocal affirmative or negative responses – not silence or a sequence of events you think might possibly have been an answer. I never get the sense David or Jesus ever doubted the answers to prayer they got – they knew they had been answered.
    You see, I did not have a good father growing up, was sexually abused by a neighbor for three years as a yound child and was the one to find my kid brother who had committed suicide at the young age of sixteen. So you can imagine the trust issues I have had to deal with in life. The Scriptures tell us that faith without deeds is dead. In my more skeptical moments, I would say promises without fulfillment are dead – merely words on a page.
    One way I have been able to reconcile the logical inconsistency I see is to conclude that God, while able to do anything, is unable to do all things at once. That might explain, for instance, why Daniel got an immediate answer from God but it took three weeks for an angel to tell him. Or why Jesus asks if God will keep “putting us off” in one of his parables on prayer. In Isaiah (65), God describes what it will be like one day for his chosen ones, when before they call, He will answer. That must be His heart. So why does He not act that way while we are on earth?
    Another way I can see to reconcile the logical inconsistency is to posit that we lack sufficient faith. I mean, what does it mean to move mountains? Maybe, for example, we can heal ourselves of whatever ails us with faith (it is fascinating to see what is being discovered about neuroplasticity in this regard, to read some of the things that have been accomplished). I mean, Jesus asks Peter as he is sinking into the sea “Why did you doubt?”. And He asks his disciples after being awakened from sleep during a strorm on the sea “Where is your faith?”. Jesus actually expected people to be able to walk on water and sleep through a life-threatening storm, it seems. Maybe we can but don’t know it.
    Those are some of my further thoughts…

  17. Larry Cheek says:

    If there is any thing that we should learn from the scriptures, it should be observing the interaction between God and humans. God is no different today than he was to many in the scriptures. He did not answer every prayer that was offered. He did answer many but many of those were not answered as the petitioner expected. Through all this interaction we do notice that the many powerful miracles that God performed for his people did not help them to remain faithful, it is even a challenge for us to believe the power involved in some of the miracles. So the things seen are not as powerful to a human as the evidence of things not seen.
    Heb 11:1-2 ESV Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (2) For by it the people of old received their commendation.

    Heb 11:32-40 ESV And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— (33) who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, (34) quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (35) Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. (36) Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. (37) They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— (38) of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (39) And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, (40) since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

    Today we cry show us then we will believe, but the power of belief is not in the seeing, once something hoped for is obtained faith is no longer needed, really it is fulfilled and is history.
    The faith then is lost. Where are we when our faith is gone?

  18. Christopher says:

    I had everything neatly compartmentalized like some here, until I underwent something like the tribulations of Job. At the beginning, the Scriptures say that Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. But that changed over time. He did find fault with God. Why? Because he was suffering greatly, searching for an explanation or relief and encountered only silence. God, by His own admission, acted against Job without reason. And at some point, Job snapped. It was too much to endure – the loss of his children, his wealth, his health and (apparently) the comfort of his wife. It is easy to play armchair theologian when you yourself are not suffering.

    I remember trying to encourage a sister stricken with cancer (she regrettably died after striving mightily for two years to live and be a mother to her children and a wife to her husband) by saying that no sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father’s will. That was stupid and insensitive of me. I know that now. I meant it to say that God had her suffering in hand; what it likely came across as was an empty platitude from an uncaring soul.

    You see, like Job, I have lost the very will to live. He asks why the light of life is given to men when they seek death more than treasure. He did not wish to live. He laments that if only God would loose his hand and cut him off. And yet live on he did. God would neither heal him or slay him. It’s interesting: the Scriptures clearly imply that God understands our limits, to understand and to endure. Yet Job suffered for months, possibly years. And, at some point, his limit to endure was surpassed. And then he found fault with God (as many, many have since then, including myself). It is incredibly hard to believe that God is truly good when you suffer greatly for a long time. I tell you the truth.

    It’s funny – I used to think the same thing as Larry about the Jews who suffered through the Holocaust. That was before I suffered and, in the process, came to grips with the sexual abuse I had suffered as a child and buried – not realizing how deeply that had affected me. By the same logic, one could say that I deserved to be molested as an eight year old child. I think instead now that God is astonishingly committed to allowing us our free will. The serial killer can kill as he chooses. The pedophile can molest as he chooses. The rapist can rape as he chooses. And Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot can murder millions upon millions as they choose. That is what I would call radical support for the exercise of free will. We get to act as we will and hurt others, but the cost of that is that we suffer harm from what others will to do to us.

    Thomas lost his faith after Jesus was crucified. I guess he was deeply hurt, for he would not believe unless certain conditions were met – even after hearing from his best friends that the Lord had appeared to them. Jesus was gracious enough to meet his conditions. But I guess some here think He or the Father were only willing to be that way for Thomas – not for me or any other poor bloke living in the 21st century. And that I do not get. If God truly only answers a smattering of prayers, then something is terribly wrong. Because He tells us to not exasperate our children and it would be exasperating for Him to tell us to pray all of the time while intending to honor but a few of the requests made to Him.

  19. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Christopher,

    Thanks for the courage to confront the challenges of believing in a good God in an evil world. I won’t pretend to understand the scope of your pain or that of the sister dealing with cancer. I’ve seen some serious suffering in this life among others. I am myself a chronic pain sufferer, but am blessed in other ways that leave my suffering incomparable to others. So let’s start by conceding that some truly awful things happen to lots of people.

    So how can God allow that? Well, there are two approaches to the question. One is, to borrow from C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock — that is, God on trial. We can place God on trial and see how well he measures up to what we’d like him to be. And he doesn’t do that well — at least not at first glance.

    I mean, take blind Bartimaeus. Great miracle story. Life transformed by being close to Jesus. Jesus healed him!

    But how many blind men and women were in Judea? In the Roman Empire? On earth? Why just Bartimaeus? (To show God’s glory is the correct answer, I think, meaning that our sufferings are not that important compared to the importance of revealing Jesus to the world. But this is a premature answer. More to come.)

    Just so, when Jesus healed the lame man who couldn’t get into the pool in time, there were dozens, maybe hundreds, of other lame people there. Why did Jesus heal just the one? Why not all of them?

    So the problem is plainly on the pages of scripture — and the apostolic writers blow right past it as thought we wouldn’t notice or shouldn’t care.

    Hmm …

    The other approach to the problem, which is where NT Wright seems to come down, is to put God back where he belongs — as King of the Universe — and rather than trying God’s qualifications to be God, we rather should ask how to reconcile what we know to be true — both that God is God and a good God and God doesn’t heal all the blind and all the lame.

    There are various theories out there, and I’m no expert. But here is one I’ve heard —

    * The Calvinist-ish view is that it’s all part of a master plan that we’ll understand some day. What looks terrible today will be worth it because it’s all for a reason because God is ultimately sovereign and nothing happens but with his approval. It’s rather like we’re actors in a play, acting our parts but not knowing the next act — but knowing everything will ultimately fit together in a good and beautiful way.

    This one takes a lot of faith and, frankly, I don’t buy it. It could be true, but I have trouble telling a wife and mother of three young children that her husband died because God wants him dead for a good reason. I think there’s evil in the world, and sometimes we suffer because of it. I think we need to see evil as evil and as God’s enemy. And that means suffering is bad and not good but in a unrevealed way. Suffering is contrary to God’s will.

    * The brings us to the more orthodox view that the world is fallen, and human free will has led to sin, and sin has led to the adulteration and futility that causes us so much suffering. It’s not just that Adam and Eve sinned. It’s also that the human nature is fallen and broken — and this brokenness has messed up the entire creation. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, disease, etc. are all products of human sin, and we brought it on ourselves.

    Now, if this is true, and I think this is what Paul is saying in Rom 8, then the cure is not magic and miracles, but a new creation — the transformation of humanity into the image of God. And if that’s the cure, then the path to the cure is the Atonement, salvation, the Kingdom, the reign of Jesus, the Spirit, and even the church.

    And as the church becomes the Kingdom, as God’s will is more and more done on earth as in heaven, the futility and adulteration of the Creation will recede — not entirely, but bit by bit. We might not even notice it, but we should see God’s general grace (I’m being a little Kuyperian here) spread and make the world better. That is, we might see it as science and engineering and even better politics and economics, but it’s really the corruption of Gen 3 being pushed back and the world becoming a slightly better place.

    As the church becomes more and more the Kingdom, as Jesus’ reign is more fully realized in our lives and the lives of others, Jesus becomes the light of the world as we become lights of the world — and things get better.

    (2 Cor. 12:9-10 ESV) 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

    As a chronic pain sufferer, I ponder this verse a lot. I can’t say I much care for it, but there’s a theme throughout scripture that God will show himself through/despite human weakness. The church reveals Jesus, not by being powerful, but by being weak. Indeed, it’s by worshiping Jesus in our suffering that I believe we best push back the adulteration and futility of Creation. By submitting to the pain of sin, worshiping God despite all that, and leaning on him against all odds and contrary to the world’s wisdom, we become like Jesus on the cross — and so become the images of God on earth.

    And as we do that, the Creation is restored to become a temple for the worship of God. We bring heaven and earth a little closer.

    But, of course, “we” is we together with God working through us by his Spirit. It’s not human effort. It’s learning to lean on God in our suffering, to see the blessing in suffering — which is crazy and makes no sense. Except we know that this is exactly what God has done for us.

    If we take God out of the dock and instead trust him, we see that he has himself climbed on the cross for us because this is, for some reason, the solution to the problem. God himself had to suffer and die painfully — not so that we are magically freed from all pain and suffering but so that God can enter us and give us some of himself — so that God’s ability to deal with suffering is given to us, so that he can help us, through the Helper. So that he can give us what we need to bear the pain.

    It’s not that the pain goes away but that we have God’s strength to endure.

    (Rom. 5:1-6 ESV) Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

    So the path through begins in suffering and ends in hope, love, the Spirit — and atonement.

    The mission of the church — and its members — thus becomes to suffer and bear it by the strength given by God so that the Creation will be set right. One day. But not entirely in the future. Some of the setting right takes place right now — in us and around us. The mere presence of God’s people who reflect Jesus on the cross to the world is beginning the process of setting things right. Things get better.

    Katrina devastates the South, and Christians travel from across the continent to set things right — and in so doing, show a skeptical world that God heals because God loves because his people heal because they love — because God is in them. That is, there were no vans filled with Atheists for Katrina Victims moving south to dig out of the mud. They might vote to send the government in, but they didn’t give up their vacations and retirements to shovel mud. And people noticed. And the futility was lifted just a bit.

    None of this is, of course, how I wish God would fix things. I’d rather that he wave his fairy-godmother magic wand, bibity bobity boo, and make the pain go away. But it seems cosmically necessary that sin be cured by a cross, and that God’s children pick up their crosses every day to restore the world — because the suffering only ends when the world sees Jesus, falls in love with him, and submits to his rule — by seeing his people on earth do the same. And until that happens, it’s going to be messy — but improving.

    That is, there’s a spiritual war going on, and I don’t understand quite it all works (but see the Atonement posts that are coming — they’ll help) and God is fighting it the only way possible — by dying on a cross and asking people to follow him there. Why that’s the cure is no easy question (again, the Atonement posts soon to come will help), but obviously he would not have died on a Roman cross if there were an easier way. So there’s not.

    So that’s kind of how I see it tonight. And I’m going to stop typing now because my fingers really hurt.

  20. Larry Cheek says:

    I hope I did not leave the impression that I thought God would not answer prayers. As has been mentioned we are commissioned to pray without ceasing, and I really believe that means that we never cease to depend upon God. Many men that I have known have expressed thoughts in prayers that almost blows my mind (they are beautiful prayers). Well in my mind I guess the Holy Spirit has to do a good job (maybe while groaning) of relaying to God my thoughts. The one thing about a relationship with God, communication lines are always open, you don’t even have to make a phone call. Prayers to God don’t even have to be audible.
    But, many thoughts that go through my mind are about those mentioned in Heb. and other parts of the scriptures who endured suffering to their end for their beliefs in God and Christ. It is very hard for me to believe that they had not prayed earnestly for relief as they endured. We can speculate that many who were enduring were allowed to just go to sleep and therefore some of the pain was canceled, but that is just speculation. So as we live knowing that God did not always answer prayers as we would believe he should have, does not give us the right to accuse God in any way about where we feel he failed to answer a prayer.

    But, how often do we hear individuals doing exactly that, in fact those who do that have normally distanced themselves from God and anyone who serves him. Yet, in these actions they are removing themselves from all of God’s promised blessings. That is somewhat like committing self destruction.

  21. John F says:

    A bit simplistic perhaps, but as we view the our own hurting and especially the hurting of others; we face our humanity. Do we respond with callousness or compassion? Compassion is close to the heart of God, who had compassion on us to the point of the cross — thus suffering serves His purposes as part of His call to us to become like Him in showing compassion — which the church does in many ways (sometimes ineffectively) in hospitals, orphanages, feeding programs. etc.

    Does that understanding help? Perhaps not much when WE are the one called to suffer or see the ones we love suffering.

  22. Christopher says:

    Jay,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree that Jesus was sent only to the “lost sheep of Isreal”. But I think you err logically in concluding that the only people He healed were those about whom we have a written record. Remember what John says at the end of his gospel:

    “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25, NIV)

    And what Mark writes at the beginning of his:

    “And the whole city had gathered at the door. And He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was. (Mark 1:33-4, NIV)

    And what Matthew says in his:

    “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14, NIV)

    And what Luke writes in his:

    “At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.” (Luke 4:40, NIV)

    We do not, in fact, know that Bartimaeus was the only blind man healed or the invalid at the pool was the only person healed there, because the Scriptures do not say that. I rather suspect Jesus healed most everyone. He even healed a Centurian’s servant and the Phoenecian woman’s daughter (this latter example is instructive, because it is hard to understand why the child of a foreigner would be possessed by a demon unless God knew in advance it would drive her to seek out His son) – going beyond His mandate to only minister to Israeal.

    So, unless one supposes that God is unable to heal from afar simply by uttering His word, but instead must do so through an agent (a prophet, Jesus, an apostle or angel), the question is why doesn’t he heal people today in great numbers in answer to prayer? The standard Church of Christ “answer” – that the age of “miracles” is over, having served their purpose – is to me as unconvincing as the ridiculous notion that music in worship is a salvation issue. God certainly still has the power and desire to bless people. Indeed, I read a news story a few months back about a pregnant woman in a south Florida hospital to deliver her child, whose heart stopped beating for forty-five minutes and who was about to be pronouced dead, but who regained consciousness without any brain or other bodily damage. Her relatives? They were in a nearby room praying while doctors were working on the woman. Sounds pretty miraculous to me.

    But none of what I’ve said changes the fact that Jesus healed a woman who was bent over and, in the Lord’s own words, had been bound by Satan “for eighteen long years”. Eighteen years! The lame man at the pool had been infirm for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years! And we can infer he wasn’t particularly righteous because he is (I think) the only person Jesus actively sought out (to tell him to quit sinning). The blind man had been blind since birth. This suggests, in the “providence” of God, that people can suffer a very long time before God acts. I am not sure why, but maybe its is as I postulated above – that while God can do anything, even He can’t do all things at once. There are 7 billion people on this earth and He has a finite number of angels and followers. The saints that die before He can get to them? They are only going to a far, far better place than the world.

    I am trying to find a reason I can accept in order to quell my unbelief and doubts. I think, as I initimated above, that is what Abraham did in order to resolve what was a seemingly logical contradiction. The “laws” of reason are, to me, much like the laws of nature. They were given to us by God and they cannot, in the end, be ignored – any more than gravity. We cannot ever hope to understand the mind of God, but I really don’t think He expects us to place our reasoning minds in park.

    I personally think He intends to confront us all of us with the same kind of choice Adam had in Eden – to trust or disbelieve what He says. Maybe THAT is the real answer to all of this. And part of that may be allowing Himself to appear as if He is evil (like Satan claimed He was to Adam and Eve). As when Jesus tells His disciples that unless they eat of his flesh and drink his blood, they have not part of Him. I think there He intentionally used figurative language that literally sounds like He was advocating cannabalism. And what happened as a result? Many of His disciples declared His was a “hard teaching” that no one could accept. They stop following Him at that point. He never tried to dissuade them from leaving by saying “Guys! You have it all wrong! You misconstrued what I said.”.

  23. John F says:

    IChristopher said: … postulated above – that while God can do anything, even He can’t do all things at once. There are 7 billion people on this earth and He has a finite number of angels and followers.”

    The children sing: “My God is so great — so strong and mighty — there’s nothing my God cannot do.” I agree with the children.

    I agree that God intends for us to use our minds “Park is not a pleasant place.”

  24. Monty says:

    Christopher,

    I, too, am sorry for the great pain you have been through. It seems we all have to find God where we are, not where we wish we could be. For some their pain and their anguish drive them into the arms of a waiting God and for others it is a barrier they cannot climb over and it pushes them away from God. I can’t say what makes the difference so sharp between individuals, but it’s there.

    My prayer is that what Satan has meant for evil with an intent to kill, destroy and incite you against God(and if not incite then to feel the need to make excuses for God-God has a busy schedule)will be the very thing that God would use for your good. That in the end your life and your life experiences and your faith purged in the fiery trials of this life will stand as a great testimony to the goodness and faithfulness of your loving God and Savior.

    Satan’s wager with God concerning Job was that if you strip him of everything he possesses, even his dignity, that he (as all men would) will curse you. Satan says you have put a protective hedge around this fellow and not allowed me to get to him. But if you take away the hedge(protection), this is what will happen, you wait and see. God took Satan up on his challenge. Satan meant to harm Job and God meant to preserve Job forever as someone who every human being can look up to and be encouraged by his faithfulness through the worst circumstances one could imagine.

    Job of course didn’t understand at the time that he would become a hero of what faith and perseverance looks like or have a Bible book written about his struggles to understand pain and suffering and the why’s of outrageous misfortune. But there is also something else Satan was alluding to when he challenged God concerning Job and it is this I believe: “You are a Santa Claus god, of course Job worships you because you have blessed him and kept the gravy train coming, but take away his blessings and he will curse you.” What is Satan saying? That, “you sir are not worthy to be worshiped because of who you are, you’re just the rich kid that nobody likes but you have a lot of friends while you’re giving away all the freebies, and when all the freebies are gone everyone will dessert you, wait and see.”

    The way I see it, the major underlying story in the book of Job is: Do we worship God and serve him because of what we’re expecting to receive(blessings, healings, answered prayers) or do we worship him because we believe that He is the Good, and while we often times just “don’t get it”, we believe he is worthy of our devotion and our love and faithfulness even when Isis is beheading our children or any number of terrible outrageous things in which God makes himself vulnerable, like hanging upon a tree. Like Jay said, as in Paul’s case, and in the case of the only sinless individual who ever lived and became my and your sin, God said, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Now if that isn’t illogical I don’t know what is. It’s certainly not something we as humans relate to very well-strength trough weakness and humility.

    My prayer for me and for you Christopher is that whatever deplorable, disgusting, tragic things happen to us is that we will not “curse God and die.” (Not that you are) But that we will bring glory to HIs great name because we believe He is worthy of glory and honor and praise even in the gloom and doom. The cross certainly has made it more possible, wouldn’t you agree? Forgive me if I seem like I’m saying I have all the right answers. I don’t. Just one fellow struggler reaching out to another. God bless.

  25. Christopher says:

    Thanks, Monty. May God bless you as well.

  26. Christopher says:

    Larry, I appreciate you taking the time ot respond to my posts. But I am not sure you really understand what I am getting at. And maybe that’s because you have never yet walked through the darkest valley. If so, I hope you never do or, if you do, it is not as severe a place as the one I am in. I wouldn’t wish this upon Hitler himself. Satan maybe, but not another human being.

  27. Christopher says:

    John F,

    It almost seems like you wish to argue with me. To what end? For

    “What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What prospects, that I should be patient? Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh bronze?” (Job 6:11-2, NIV)

    and

    “I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 10:1, NIV)

    and when, as Job says, the words of one in dispair belong to the wind?

  28. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Christopher,

    I have trouble with the theory that God doesn’t heal more people because he simply cannot do so. Nor am I happy the theory that his refusal to heal is to test our faith — although that seems more likely to me.

    Pascal argued that God cannot do more because to do more would be to make things worse. For example, if Jesus were to heal all the lame, then perhaps people would be less careful and even more lame people would appear. Or perhaps some of the lame would not seek solace in God and would leave saving faith. We don’t know contingent, future truths. God does. Only he knows the long-term consequences of his decisions. We cannot. We just have to trust him based on what know about him, especially via the cross.

    Or suppose God healed all disease, all poverty, all oppression, and brought heaven to earth right now — would that be a good thing? We would be absolved from having to help in God’s mission, we wouldn’t need to do the least thing to make the world a better place, and we’d already have heaven on earth — and no hell and no justice. Would that be better?

    I don’t know. I know that parents who rescue their children from all painful experiences produce very spoiled, nasty kids — who are often desperately unhappy and commit suicide. Why wouldn’t the same be true at the human-race level? Maybe we aren’t good enough to receive such a blessing without being destroyed by it?

    We want to assume that God’s purpose is to bring into a life of bliss, but I think that overlooks God’s purpose to restore into his own image — and that requires carrying a cross, because God carried a cross. And we forget that to be in God’s image is to become a co-ruler of the Creation — which sounds cool until you remember that Jesus was enthroned only after dying on the cross.

    So for us to become kings in the image of God, we need to become like Jesus, meaning we need to be ready to die on a cross for someone who doesn’t deserve it.

    Final point: Under any theory, ultimately, the answer has to be the cross. God would not have died on the cross had it not been necessary. And so the cross becomes self-proving: It was necessary or God would not have done it. Therefore, the problem that God wants to fix is whatever problem is fixed by the cross.

    So maybe we need to redefine the problem, not in terms of how to avoid suffering, but how to become like Jesus.

    That’s the best I can do. Maybe one day God will give me a better answer.

  29. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    I think what you said is very close to what I’m trying to say.

  30. John F says:

    Christopher, my point above is God is ABLE to do all and everything, not to argue with you…. He has no limits (as the children sing above, and we should understand the same). For His reasons, He chooses to act and allow in ways above our understanding — as Job acknowledges. I share the compassion shown in above comments by others, and until I understand something different in the deeper the things of God, I will choose compassion.

  31. John F says:

    JAY: “That is, for believers to be truly saved and freed from evil and suffering, they must be enabled, by the Spirit, to truly forgive — because until we forgive, we are trapped in misery by the person who sinned against us.]”

    This statement is critical to understand. Are we to allow someone who has hurt us POWER over us to determine our relationship with God? This is seen in such statements as .”I will never come to worship because .Bro. / Sis. ‘ they … (fill in the blank).” Too often the one (s) causing the hurt DO NOT CARE for the hurt (real or imagined) caused. To fail to forgive is to allow others to control our relationship with God. This is not a good thing to allow. We may choose NOT to expose ourselves to continuing hurt, and separate from those responsible; but NEVER allow others such POWER over your sporitual life.

  32. Christopher says:

    Well, thanks for your thoughtful responses all. It shows you care.

    I don’t think anyone has offered a justification for suffering that rings any bells for me. I have always taken the Scriptures very seriously and the central problem I announced at the outset remains: God is pictured as one who, in compassion and love, delivers people when they cry out to Him. That theme is not in found in a couple of obscure passages – it is everywhere. Yes, Jesus came to redeem us from the penalty of death and an empty way of life. But I don’t think that means He suddenly changed his modus operandi with His people. There is no indication that Jesus went about His work hobbled by physical infirmaties. Everyone suffers in life and I have no complaint about that. It is interminable suffering that is problematic. We, in mercy, put animals asleep that can only live on in pain. And I am no Stephen Hawkins fan, but I am appalled at his having languished fifty years with a disease that normally kills people in two or three years.

    I have a hard time accepting the idea that God doesn’t heal His people who cry out to him for months or years simply because He wants them to suffer like Jesus. Like I said, the Lord Himself was not infirm. Paul was not either, as far as I can tell. We don’t know what His affliction was, but here’s a notable difference between him and us: the Lord actually appeared to Him, he could perform miracles and he was caught up to the third heaven. Those experiences, I submit, provide a whole lot of staying power. They are more than words on a page.

    I guess if God answers my cry for deliverance, I (like Job) will have my answer. Because I feel somehow therein lies the solution to the questions I have raised (like so many before me). If God only came to save me, give me some marching orders and then let me essentially fend for myself with emotional and spiritual help from His spirit, where is the “Abba, father” relationship in that? Jesus likens God to human parents, because that is the closet analog to His love for people on earth. And so He asks what father gives his son a rock when he asks for bread or a snake when he asks for fish? Answered prayer answers all questions. We don’t get everything we want, but we get what we need (I can’t believe I am paraphrasing some Rolling Stones lyrics). People need to be well in order to work. Jesus likens God’s workers to farmers. I worked on a farm as a kid. You won’t find any invalids there.

    May God bless all of you as you seek His face.

  33. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F wrote,

    Are we to allow someone who has hurt us POWER over us to determine our relationship with God?

    Exactly. For sin to lose its power over us, we must learn to forgive. Or else heaven won’t be any fun at all.

  34. Randy says:

    From Richard Constant via me:

    I was anticipating the brotherly fellowship that would come about through a discussion about the Trinities work that has given us the ability to say that we are saved.
    Blessings there young boy.
    I’ve been putting this thing together for 50 years another few days aren’t going to make it go away for me
    Now you’re going to have to read about what I’ve got to say to Jay and answering that question that he brought up and that NT Wright can answer either…. I can. it neat and I was going to have you type it out because I can’t type I can only make mistakes with a stupid voice actualization. But boy oh boy I can read and type I think I’ve even put it together with law its real easy.
    When you’re working with Genesis 3:22 I think

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