- On why “fully” is a bad description for divine presence(published )
In response to the statement that “If God’s presence was fully with us then surely the evil and alienation and suffering would end.” That depends on what “fully” means. Does it mean “concretely,” “observably,” “manifestly,” etc.? Does it mean “deeply,” “intimately,” or “in the heart”? Does it mean “transformationally”? “Gloriously”? “Victoriously”? “Ubiquitously”? Something else? If we are using quantitative metaphors (fully, partially) to talk about how concretely or manifestly God is present, then no, God being fully present doesn’t mean the end of the old order. It doesn’t get any more concrete and manifest than the incarnation—one could literally see, hear, and touch God in Jesus—and that did not bring the old order to its end. If we are describing God’s presence with quantitative metaphors as a way to discuss how he relates to us, then once again, no. The Holy Spirit dwells in us already (corporately and individually) and is “closer to us than our own hearts,” but the old order is not ended thereby. Paul does use quantitative metaphors to talk about how the Spirit’s presence now functions soteriologically (i.e. as a downpayment on our future inheritance of glory), but this indicates how our salvation is not yet fully realized, not that the Spirit is only partially present to us. The Holy Spirit’s real, full, and true presence in us today is precisely what enables us to face the ongoing reality of the old order with faith that evil, alienation, and suffering will end. If “fully” means “gloriously” or (more to the point) “victoriously,” then the statement is true. God’s ultimate triumph over evil will mean the end of the old order of things. ... But does God’s “full” presence properly mean his being triumphantly present? Was God less present at the stoning of Stephen than at Peter’s healing of the lame man outside the gate called “Beautiful”? Was God less present on the cross than at the transfiguration? Perhaps we need to understand the relation between God’s presence and the existence of evil in a different way. I suggest that it’s not a matter of how much God is present vs. how much evil and suffering there is. “How much” is not the right sort of relation at all; it isn’t a matter of degree, but of mode. The right question is “In what way is God present in the midst of this suffering and evil?” Or better, “How is God acting in the midst of this suffering and evil?” The cross requires us to see God himself nailed to it, God himself surrendered to death and submitted to it. Our God does not negate evil. He does not make it as if it never were. No, he takes it, goes into it, and from the depths, he changes it! He rises from the grave not as a negation of death, but as the subversion and transformation of death. He rises with the nail scars in his hands and the gash in his side, but now they are wounds of glory. They have not disappeared; they have not ceased to be wounds inflicted on him by nails and spear. But they no longer hold the power of death, for they have been transformed into wellsprings of life. The life that flowed out of those wounds into the void has proven to be inexhaustible, and now the void is changed. Eschatological new life arises where there was only death, new life where there was only destruction, because God is there, too. So, do we still see suffering and evil in our world because God is not fully present? No. Our world still contains brokenness because God is currently present in a mode of kenotic redemption, subverting evil into good and transforming suffering into new life. We look forward to the day when this work will be complete and he will be present in the mode of glory, having won his victory via transformation rather than negation. But in the meantime, we suffer not because he is only partially present, but because he is not yet finished the work he is doing in us and our world.
- On human suffering and the problem of evil, updated (published )
Problem: Human suffering. God is all powerful. God is all loving. Choose one or the other. Is it a paradox? A Mystery? Is God ‘hidden’ behind the work of Jesus? Go, theologians. —Posted by Roger Flyer on Tuesday, July 2, 2013, at 5:12pm What kind of problem of suffering are you really asking about, Roger? The philosophical problem (or rather, some version of it), or the concrete problem? To the philosophical problem, I’ll contribute two points: 1) Attempts to make sense of the existence of evil in God’s creation are doomed to failure. This is because trying to make sense of evil’s existence is equivalent to trying to find a reason why it is here, which is to try to give it a rational, proper place in God’s creation. But evil has no rational, proper place in God’s creation. It doesn’t belong here—that’s what makes it evil. It is fundamentally irrational and fundamentally should not be, and so it cannot be explained. The moment we find a way to make sense of suffering and find a proper place and role for evil in creation, we can be sure that something has gone horrifically wrong in our thought process and that we should stop, back up, and figure out how it was that we came to point of calling evil good. 2) The philosophical problem is built on the unstated (and false) premise that the creation of the world has already been completed. If the world is “all done” then there are obvious reasons to criticize the Creator’s handiwork as the result of incompetence and/or indifference. However, if the world is even now “under construction” then complaining that it isn’t perfect doesn’t make sense. Of course it isn’t perfect yet; it’s not done yet. The world is still on its way from the tohu vabohu (Gen 1:2) of its initial chaos to the good, glorious, life-filled order of its final completion (cf. Rev 21 & 22’s New Jerusalem imagery). A lot of good has been accomplished already, but there are still parts where the destructive forces of chaos and nothingness have yet to be driven out. With this, we have now come to the concrete problem of evil. This is the part where we stop treating evil as an perplexing intellectual conundrum, and start treating it as a problem that needs to be fixed. My two points to contribute here mirror those above: 1) If the process of creation isn’t complete yet, then the proper question isn’t “Why would a loving and omnipotent God allow evil in his creation?” but rather “Why did he put us into this world before he was done perfecting it?” And the answer is “To help.” Both the Gen 1 and the Gen 2-3 accounts tell us, each with their own imagery, that the purpose of human beings was to go out and tame the wilderness that still remained in the world. (We are talking Middle Eastern, nasty, scrabbly, desert wilderness here, not beautiful North American forests and rivers; wilderness = bad.) Our task was to be one of the means by which God would make all things into a garden. Our sinfulness means that we have become cooperators with the forces of chaos, but that hasn’t negated our God-given calling. Instead, it means that we have to look to the Spirit of God to push back the encroaching chaos/desert/wilderness within us and thus to enable us to contribute (despite our sin) towards the eventual perfection of the world that he will bring to pass in the end no matter what. 2) This means that, on the concrete level, suffering can become meaningful. Suffering’s origins and causes provide no meaning, but when God takes up our suffering and transforms and heals it in such a way that he brings forth new good from the evil—then it becomes meaningful. By being changed into the seedbed of new good, it comes to have a proper place in the God-intended order of things. Based on the cruciform glory of Jesus, with its pattern of death-unto-resurrection and kenosis-unto-exaltation, we can see that the eschatologically oriented creative power of God is such that he takes our suffering, in all its horror and senselessness, and changes it such that the evil is displaced and new good comes into being. This isn’t a matter of making sense of the senseless in the way that we usually mean that term. Instead, it is a matter of God using his creative-redemptive power to actually make sense where there was none before. A good example of this can be found the contrast between the way the disciples tried to make sense of the man’s blindness in John 9 and Jesus’ way of doing that. The disciples expected an explanation for the disability in terms of its cause, and were simply arguing about what that was. They were therefore trying to find a way to make the occurrence of this evil fit rationally into their understanding of the universe—in other words, to give evil a home in the proper order of things. Jesus, on the other hand, rejects their attempts to make sense of the disability in terms of a causal reason. Instead, Jesus says that the reason for this affliction is to be found in the way God will act in response to it. In other words, the affliction becomes reasonable—i.e. comes to have a proper place in the God-intended order of things—by being transformed and healed by God. It is when God brings forth good out of the suffering that it is changed from senseless suffering into redemptive suffering. In sum, the answer to “Why did this bad thing happen?” is not found in the cause of the situation, but in its transformation.