Beliefnet
Blogalogue

Tom,
Thanks so much for your most recent post, which clarifies your view considerably. It is a forceful, and I would even say elegant, statement.
Before responding, let me address two minor points that you make in passing, one about my argument and the other about me.


(1) On that ole emotion issue, you indicate that “if one is making an argument, then multiplying examples of the problem doesn’t actually add to the force of that argument.“ That’s a logician’s point and (I’m afraid) suggests different investments from the ones that I have in this “debate.” My view is that the numbers matter because people matter. They all matter and they are all that matter. If the Nazis had killed only one Jew, we would not be having this conversation (we probably should be, but we wouldn’t be). They killed six million. Each is an example, and multiple examples matter, logicians (please, one might add) be damned.
(2) You suspect that I left the faith because I had an intellectualizing understanding of it. I’m afraid that’s wrong. I was dead set against understanding Christian faith as some kind of assent to propositional statements – I preached (sometimes literally) against this view frequently, for years. My faith was a relationship with Christ, and through him with God. Several people have tried to psychoanalyze my journey; most of the time they get it wrong. I can see why they try though. If I left for good reasons, they too may be left facing the void!
Those points aside, I have two major responses to your second posting.
First, in your summary statement of “the biblical” view of suffering (which is what I took your statement to be – but maybe I was wrong about that?), you overlook virtually everything the Bible actually says about the subject. That gives me pause.
I know you (intimately) know what the Bible says on the subject. But let me summarize a few points to get to a question at the end. (The summary is for the sake of the debate – not for you!)
The most prominent answer in Scripture is given by the prophets: the reason people suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it. Is this a view that you, as a biblical theologian (or anyone else?) wants to support? Just take the book of Amos, who is characteristic, in this respect, of the entire prophetic corpus. Because Israel is God’s chosen people (3:2), “therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” And punish them he does. He brings starvation (4:6), drought (4:7-8), crop failure (4:9); he literally “killed your young men” (4:10) as he did the people of Sodom and Gomorah (4:11). It’s not that these are isolated events, for Amos or for the rest of the Bible. This, for much of the Bible, is how God deals with his people! “Does disaster (calamity/evil) befall the city if the Lord has not done it?” (3:6)
I wish Amos were an isolated case, but it’s not. This is the message throughout the prophets: God hurts, torments, and kills people to get them to repent. Strikingly, this view is not limited to the prophets. In Genesis the entire world was so wicked that God drowned the whole lot of them. Every one of them. Every man, woman, and child on the planet. Drowned by God himself. Including all the four year old boys and the infant girls. (Sorry to multiply examples…) And what exactly did these children have to do with wickedness?
God also has his chosen people maim and murder others for his purposes. Why did the people of Jericho suffer? Because they happened to live in Jericho. Wrong place, wrong time. When God gave his people the Promised Land, he instructed them explicitly to take the city by murdering every man, woman, and child (and animal!) in the city. Is this a God who can be believed in, one who orders murder? Or is this an exceptional case, since after, all, those people were probably wicked and needed to be eliminated?
This view of suffering as punishment, of course, is just one biblical answer (even though it’s a dominant one). But no one should think that it is limited to the Old Testament, as is clear from the Book of Revelation. The Lake of Fire is stoked up and waiting. That will be suffering in extremis, for all eternity, for everyone who does not side with the Lamb. Those Muslims, Jews, Buddhists – even those happy agnostics – are going to get it in the end, big time.
I think I can understand why you choose not to talk about such passages – even though they directly deal with precisely the question of what the Bible has to say about suffering. Or with other passages, such as the prose narrative at the beginning and end of Job, where God allows Job’s life to be shattered in order to prove a point to the Satan – allowing Satan even to murder Job’s children to see if he can get him to curse God. At the end, God makes it up to Job by restoring all his wealth – and giving him an additional ten children. I doubt if there’s a more offensive verse in the Bible – God giving Job ten more children to replace the ones he lost. As if we can replace six million Jews from the Holocaust by having six million more born in the next generation. Sometimes you wonder what the biblical authors were thinking.
Then there is the poetry of Job, where the answer to suffering appears to be that there is no answer, that God is almighty and is not accountable to us peons, and if we dare to ask why, though innocent, we suffer, we are liable, like Job, to be squashed into the dirt by God’s all powerful presence, forced to “repent in dust and ashes” even for asking the question.
And there is the answer of Ecclesiastes (the one I personally resonate with), that life is short, there is often no justice, things often go wrong, and there is no afterlife in which all will be made right. I think Ecclesiastes has nailed it, but it does seem to stand at odds with your view.
But there is also the answer of the apocalypticists, the one that (in its Christian version, not the Jewish) ultimately you hold to. More on that in a moment. For now, I just want to push a simple question. If you see yourself as a biblical theologian, and take the Bible – the whole Bible, not just the parts you like – seriously, how can you leave out of the equation most of what the Bible actually says about the subject? Is it because you think parts of the Bible are no longer applicable? Is it because you are working – as we used to say twenty years ago – with a “canon within the canon”? Or do you honestly think that you are allowing these other voices to be heard in your synthesizing statement of “the biblical” view on suffering?
The second problem I have with your view is that by presenting a kind of overarching view of what the Gospel (and Pauline) message is, you create a synthesizing view that undercuts what each individual author actually has to say. Mark’s views, for example, are radically – not just slightly – different from John’s. It is not simply that there are a few stories here and there that cut against the grain; Mark’s views of Jesus, and of God and the kingdom and what it means – to use your terms, which are not the Gospels’ – for “God to be running the world” are decidedly not John’s views, and vice versa.
I’m not a theologian (you can thank God), but if I were, I would think that it is not good theology to deprive the voices of the individual biblical authors of their individual views by synthesizing them into a whole that is unlike any one of them.
Moreover, I would say that for a Gospel like Mark’s, it is true that God’s Kingdom is coming (which, btw, is not at all the same as saying that one can see how God is running the world!), and that in some sense it has become manifest in the ministry of Jesus. But the entire premise of the coming Kingdom (both in the actual teaching of the historical Jesus and in Mark) (though not in John) is that this is an imminent event. “Some of you standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power.” Rob the kingdom of its imminence, and it suddenly means something very, very different. Here I think our different views of apocalypticism are rubber meeting the road.
The kingdom never did come. You seem to think that it will. So has every generation of Christians from day one – many of them, like Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and Paul!), expecting it within their own lifetimes. Every one of them has been wrong. I don’t think this should be taken lightly. The view that the kingdom is already beginning to be manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus hinges on its actual appearance in the (imminent) days to come. If that actual appearance is jettisoned, everything is changed.
But leave aside the question of whether it is sensible to think the kingdom really, actually, is ever going to come. How does one see it manifest in Jesus? In fact, it is not simply in his “obedience” (and suffering), as you intimate. I think you are reading the Gospels through the lens of Paul, rather than reading the narratives of the Gospels themselves. For the Synoptics, for example, the Kingdom is manifest in Jesus’ life and work: in the kingdom there will be no disease, no demons, and no death. Jesus manifests this kingdom in the meantime: he heals the sick, he casts out demons, and he raises the dead. This was not a message about some vague power of God breaking in at some period thousands of years hence. It was God breaking in now (in anticipation of its imminent appearance in power).
And is he? This I think is where we differ in a major way. In my view there is nothing to suggest that the Kingdom has arrived, even provisionally, in the coming of Jesus, in the way the Gospels themselves think (that in his coming the sick are healed, the demons cast out, and the dead raised). There are no fewer sick, demon-possessed, or dying now than before the appearance of Jesus (and his obedience and death). There are no fewer people born with horrible birth defects. There are no fewer lepers, blind, and lame. The multitudes are not being fed. The storms are not being stilled (think Katrina, for example).
Quite the contrary, the world goes on as it ever did. The writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not expect this (nor did Paul). They saw the kingdom arriving with Jesus’ ministry, they saw his death and resurrection as the beginning of the end, and they expected the end to come in their lifetime – when God would overthrow the forces of evil and set up a kingdom in which there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering. Our actual history stands at odds with their expectation, our world of genocides, AIDs, malaria, unclean drinking water, leprosy, birth defects, hurricanes, Columbian mudslides that kill 30,000, Pakistan earthquakes that kill 50,000, Indian Ocean tsunamis that kill 300,000, and on and on and on.
I wish Jesus had brought the Kingdom. But the human race struggles along its not so merry way, with all its pain, misery, and suffering – biblically based hopefulness notwithstanding – world without end.
What I see as extremely valuable in your view is the emphasis on the need to imitate Jesus in a life of obedience. If Christians really would be obedient to what they see as the will of God – for example in the “two greatest commandments” – the world would be a much better place. But it would still not be the Kingdom.
I know this note sounds critical in places, but I have wanted to state my view forcefully. Let me conclude on a conciliatory note, and ask if you will agree with me on four of the leading claims of my book God’s Problem:
(1) There are in fact many and varied answers in the Bible to the question of why there is suffering, not one overarching answer common to all the Bible’s authors.
(2) Some of these answers stand at odds with one another.
(3) Some of these biblical views (that God starves, drowns, and slaughters people he disapproves of, for example) are not satisfactory answers to why there is suffering in our world.
(4) Even if we cannot, in the end, know the reasons for suffering, we can at the least have appropriate responses to it. We ourselves can feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked; we can work to solve problems of poverty; we can give money to agencies finding cures for cancer and AIDS; we can volunteer more often locally; we can give more to international relief efforts. We can, in fact, fulfill the urgent demands implicit in Matthew’s account of the judgment between the sheep and the goats, for “as you have done this to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”

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