I try not to put up too many theological posts here. I doubt that’s what most folks come here to see and there are already plenty of blogs out there that do theology better than I ever could.
But today I want to return to my wonderings about how to reconcile God and evil. Pardon my ramblings…
No father with an ounce of compassion and the ability to prevent it would allow his children to be slaughtered. Yet we must come to grips with the reality that if God exists, and if he is omnipotent in the classical sense of that term, then he does just that every day.
As I’ve said before, I have no ultimate answers and I’m highly suspicious of anyone who claims to have them. But today I have a few more scattered thoughts to offer, beginning with the example of Jesus.
Jesus prayed for God to intervene and save him from suffering, and God didn’t intervene. Jesus was arrested, beaten, tortured, mocked, humiliated, abandoned by his friends, stipped naked publicly and nailed to a cross to die. In the gospels of Mark (the oldest of the gospels) and Matthew, Jesus is recorded as having said only one thing on the cross. In those two accounts (Matthew’s being essentially a copy of Mark’s) Jesus doesn’t forgive anyone, he doesn’t promise paradise to one of those executed with him (in fact, in both those accounts those executed with Jesus also “heaped insults on him”), and he doesn’t make any theological speeches. The only thing Mark and Matthew record Jesus as saying on the cross is the anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Unanswered prayers for divine protection and feelings of being abandoned by God are nothing new.
To be sure, the ancient prophets have predicted a coming New Creation, in which all things willbe redeemed and restored, and death and suffering will be no more.
But that is not the world we live in. Our world is violent, brutal, cruel and often unfair.
But I turn again to Jesus, who never promised an easy carefree life to those who follow him. Instead, he told them they’d suffer. Any who would follow me must “take up a cross,” he said. I’ve studied those words. I’ve come to conclude that he did not mean (as we commonly sanitize them) that we’ll all have difficulties in life. He meant “take up a cross.” His words were shocking because to be executed by crucifixion was the most shameful, humiliating form of death known. In his culture any who suffered such shame were thought to be in God’s disfavor–forsaken by God.
At least 12 people were murdered while worshipping at Christmas Eve services in Nigeria this year. Those folks knew they were risking their lives when they went to church, as dozens of worshippers have been killed at Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services in Nigeria each of the past two years. They went anyway.
Through the centuries and around the globe today, there are many who regularly take up a cross. But the vast majority of us don’t.
As Thomas a Kempis wrote, “Jesus hath now many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross.”
The way of Jesus is not a way free from suffering and the world is not free from senseless evil. So should we just passively accept suffering and write it off as part of God’s intended order? Should we just “grin and bear it” taking comfort in the fact that Jesus not only suffered himself but predicted suffering for all who truly follow him?
I don’t think so. That kind of fatalism is dangerous and cannot represent God’s final plan for the creation he loves, in my humble opinion.
Of course I’m aware of and embrace the words of St. Paul, quoted powerfully by President Obama at the memorial service:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But Paul preceded those words with words of expectation that creation will someday be liberated from the bondage of decay and that we patiently wait in the hope of that liberation.
Things are always changing. Creation is not something that happened once, then ended. It is ongoing. But the process of creation is brutal, violent, ugly. We are red in tooth and claw.
The problem with my natural evil analysis, which otherwise seems so neat and clean, is that it ignores this. “Natural evil,” violence, death, mutation, extinction–all existed before humanity existed. They seem to be part of the very fabric of the process of creation.
Jesus in some sense may represent a revolt against the tide of biological evolution. Biological evolution tells us that the strong, the fittest, will survive and the weak will die off. Jesus denied that. The first shall be last, he said. Woe to the “fittest.” The weak shall inherit the earth.
But earthly power doesn’t reside in the weak. Jesus brought hope and comfort to the weak. But he was also killed for doing so.
I take comfort in the fact that Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose, arguably the first of the general resurrection to come. At least that is the dream and vision of the prophets of “new creation” — where there will be no death, no violence, no suffering. Where the lion will lie down with the lamb. Where swords are beaten into plowshares. Where little children aren’t murdered.
If we look at a snapshot of the world in 1912 and compare it to a snapshot now, the contrast would reveal great progress and advances in almost every measurable metric. There are fewer starving people, fewer sick people, fewer poor people. The world is less violent now than it was then, and less violent now than it has ever been. Yet between 1912 and now we’ve had two world wars, multiple genocides, and innumerable tragedies. The path upward is not a straight line. It seems to be puntuated with fits and starts. Humanity may be moving toward a better future, but the trail behind it is littered with bodies and injustice.
I don’t know what it all means. Maybe individualism has corrupted our thinking. Then again, maybe it has corrected it. I’m not sure. But I hold on to hope for better days for all us. And I firmly believe the world is destined to synch up with the divine in a beautiful way. I especially believe that we can be part of making that happen. Starting now. I believe it is expected of us.