Thanks, Bart, for your response and further statement. I suspect we are both going to find that we start hares running in one another’s minds which there won’t be time to chase. I think the question of the definition and description of apocalyptic had better be one of those; we could talk another time perhaps . ..
But I want to begin where you end, which is the key question of your book.
(And of course I am very much alive to the importance of the emotions within the whole debate, and don’t at all want to reduce it to cold logic; but if one is making an argument, then multiplying examples of the problem doesn’t actually add to the force of that argument.)
Your question is, How can there be all these horrors ‘if there is a good and all powerful God in charge of the world?’ My comment, in my previous posting, was that in the Gospels, Jesus’ claim is, in effect, ‘This is what it looks like when God is running the world’ (one way of saying ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’). Of course I am alive to the different emphases and nuances between the Gospels, but in their different ways they agree, I think, on this: that what was going on during Jesus’ public career actually was the inauguration of ‘God being in charge of the world’ in a new way. (In this, despite their various emphases, the canonical gospels agree over against the non-canonical, wouldn’t you say?)
Of course, it didn’t look like Jesus’ contemporaries were hoping it would (victory for Israel against her enemies; new levels of purity attained; etc.). In the same way, it doesn’t look like what we would want (God abolishing disease, war, hatred, natural disaster, etc. at a stroke). But it seems to have been Jesus’ claim that this is what Israel’s God, the world’s creator, was actually up to.
From that point of view I suppose the Gospels constituted, and still constitute, a challenge to all expectations, particularly in that they link – as readers for hundreds have years have found it difficult to do – the story of Jesus’ kingdom-inauguration with the story of his crucifixion and resurrection. Somehow, they are saying, this is what it looks like when the good, all-powerful and all-loving God is in charge of the world. You may say that if this is what they’re saying then the God of whom they speak is not ‘all-powerful’ in the way we might have imagined, and I suspect that is in a sense correct. Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running of the world’ (if that’s the right phrase) in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way, running the world through an obedient, and ultimately suffering, human being, with that obedience, and especially that suffering, somehow instrumental in the whole process. What ‘we would want God to do’ – to have God measure up to our standards of ‘how a proper, good and powerful God would be running the world’! – seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question.
The mystery of Jesus himself, then, is for me near the heart of – not ‘the answer’, because I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘the answer’, but – the matrix of thought and life within which God’s people are called to continue to grapple with the problem. This is where, in Evil and the Justice of God, I try to draw together traditional discussions of ‘the atonement’ and traditional discussions of ‘the problem of evil’ and suggest that it’s odd that they should ever have been separated, since they seem to go together so closely in the Bible itself. (And can’t be reduced, I suggest, to the ‘God punishes sin’ logic; I have tended to include some elements of that within the Christus Victor motif, which, yes, involves suprahuman cosmic powers and all that. Hard though they are to describe adequately, they are even harder, in my view, to ignore.)
That’s why, in my view, the gospels are written not just to draw Israel’s story to its climax (I hear what you say about the big story and the multiple little stories, by the way; I love the little stories that cut across the seam, but I persist in thinking that it is part of the task of a Christian theologian to read the Bible as a whole and see its larger currents of thought as well as its smaller ones. This is partly a re-run of the Plato/Aristotle debate, isn’t it? I think we need both, the big picture and the little details) . . . but also to generate a story which continues, in my view, to this day and indeed to the day when God renews all things at last: the story of those who, following Jesus, make his dealing-with-evil project a reality in and through their own lives. That’s why the early church spread, not by thumping dogmas into people’s heads but by living in a way which brought healing and hope, a way rooted in the achievement of Jesus in his kingdom-inauguration and, not least, in his kingdom-establishing death and resurrection. (And of course – just in case anyone was in any doubt – all Christians who lived before modern medicine knew far more about multiple pain, suffering and apparently pointless death than most of us do, and it was close up and in the family a good deal of the time. And it didn’t shake their faith, or not too drastically. ‘The problem of evil’ as we think of it today is largely a post-Enlightenment construct.)
You see (to come back to it again), I do persist in thinking that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead then there would be no reason to hold any form of Christian faith. A wistful Judaism, perhaps, but not a faith in one who would be, then, a failed prophet of the kingdom. It is because I believe in Jesus’ resurrection that I believe that the creator God has inaugurated his new creation in which, at the last, he will wipe away all tears from all eyes. I don’t think you can start from observation of the world and somehow reason up to Christian faith, because one meets precisely the problems you have so rightly and graphically raised. But – and I wonder if this is actually the position you held when you yourself were still a practicing Christian? – if one believes, not merely as an intellectual assent to doctrine but as a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then the dark mystery of suffering can be seen within the context of his suffering, and be transformed by it.
Of course, for its fullness this necessarily generates, as I said, the life of the church in and through which evil is then addressed. Part of the ‘transformation’ is that Jesus’ followers go to work as healers, reconcilers, and so on. That’s why the last two chapters of my book are a small attempt to say that the work of believing people in addressing the urgent needs of the world is actually a part of the biblical answer – if you can call it an ‘answer’ – to the problem. And, in the course of that, I explore the notion of ‘forgiveness’ as the thing which not only releases the person forgiven from the burden of their own guilt, but also releases the person who forgives from the burden of going on being angry. And I suggest that this might even apply to God himself, at the end . . . though I guess that’s a bridge too far for some people, and certainly for yourself.
I guess I do hope that I can help other people come to a view similar to mine (though, as I used to tell my students, 25% of what I say is wrong but I don’t know which 25% it is). I wasn’t implying that was a bad thing to want to persuade people, only that if you didn’t think you were mounting a potentially conclusive argument it raised the question as to whether this was the main or leading reason why you yourself stopped being a Christian. But that may be a question for another time.
I sense we’re just beginning… but even if your next post is your last one in this sequence, thanks for the fun of thinking round these complex but pressing issues.