On Tolkien’s vision of sorrowful joy

Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg.jpg

Ralph Wood has written another excellent piece on J. R. R. Tolkien’s assessment of history, evil, being a company, eucatastrophe, impatience, joy, Beowulf, mercy, patience, pity, providence, sympathy, and ‘sorrowful joy’. Here’s a taster:

For Tolkien, the chief question – and thus the real quest – concerns the proper means for “redeeming the time.” The great temptation is to take short-cuts, to follow the easy way, to arrive quickly. In the antique world of Middle-earth, magic offers the surest escape from slowness and suffering. It is the equivalent of our machines. Both ancient and modern magic provide what Tolkien called immediacy: “speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect.”

The magic of haste is the method chosen by those who are in a hurry, who lack patience, who cannot wait. Sauron wins converts because he provides his followers the necromancy to achieve such instant results by coercing the wills of others, giving them brute strength to accomplish allegedly grand ends by cursory means.

The noble who refuse such haste prove, alas, to be most nobly tempted. Gandalf, the Christ-like wizard who quite literally lays down his life for his friends, knows that he is an unworthy bearer of the Ring – not because he has evil designs that he wants secretly to accomplish, but rather because his desire to do good is so great. Gandalf’s native pity, when combined with the omnipotent strength of the Ring, would transform him into an all-forgiving, justice-denying magus, not a figure befitting the origins of his wizard-name in the Anglo-Saxon word wys (“wise”).

You can read the full essay here.

[Image: ‘Helm’s Deep & the Hornburg’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Source.]

‘What kind of resistance is possible against a world without mercy?’

Hannah ArendtThe LARB has published an interesting essay by Wen Stephenson that draws upon wisdom from Hannah Arendt for those living at the dawn of a new ‘era of increasing global instability, ripe for all the varieties of political and social evil’.

The essay includes reflections on subjects such as totalitarianism, human rights, making judgements, collective guilt, conscience, evil, making moral choices, nonviolence, civil disobedience, and crimes against humanity.

And on empathy:

[Em]pathy, though much celebrated, is not always a reliable impulse toward moral action – that it can cut both ways. Because our natural inclination to empathize with the victims of crime and injustice, while generally a good thing, when mixed with our tribal instincts – our biases, conscious or not, in favor of people like ourselves, members of our own communities — can lead to a dehumanization of the stranger, the other, especially if that other is the perpetrator (or perceived to be) of a crime. It’s easy to empathize with a victim, as one should; to empathize with a murderer – to see ourselves in another who violates our deepest values and taboos – is something else, something that may seem beyond our merely human capacity.

You can read the whole piece here.

Scripture’s reckoning with the tragic

Pete Cramblit, 'Cain slaying Abel'

Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’

The Bible makes no effort at all to shy away from the tragic. From the story of creation’s genesis against the backdrop of primordial chaos to the seemingly-indiscriminate annihilation of life caused by a global flood, from the narratives of the primal couple’s decline into deathliness to the violent end of their son Abel, from the anamnesis of Job to Abraham’s near infanticide of Isaac, from the promise of a nation’s birth out of Sarah’s barren womb to Israel’s brutal creation from the bowels of cruel bondage in Egypt, from the violence that marked the retelling of Israel’s establishment in Canaan and their disestablishment at the time of the Babylonian exile to their life in Roman-occupied Palestine, from the murder of Israel’s prophets to the suicide of guilt-ridden Judas, from the despairing poetry of the psalmists and prophets to Herod’s most unpoetic massacre of the innocents, from the state-sanctioned murder of a blameless Christ to the cries of faithful martyrs hiding under the altar desperate for their blood to be avenged ‘on the inhabitants of the earth’ (Rev 6.10), the Bible’s narratives are inextricably and unavoidably bound up with suffering and faith and evil and death.

And its pages, rich in tragic tropes, offer no univocal attitude to suffering and evil (see, for example, the massive ­– nearly 900 pages! ­– volume edited by Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor, Theodicy in the World of the Bible: The Goodness of God and the Problem of Evil (Brill, 2003), nor consensus about their causes and purposes. Indeed, the various authors and redactors of its texts betray a smorgasbord of theologies and interpretations on this subject, as on most others.

While many modern believers seem to conclude that the greatest threat to life lies in sin, the Bible suggests that one of the most enduring threats to life is entirely out of our hands. It is the threat of the sea, the home of the great leviathan, and the perpetual menace of abyss that exists, as it were, on the edges of all that we can know and gain some semblance of control over. The Jews, a land-based people, were terrified by the sea, avoided travelling on it at all costs, especially if it meant sailing out of land’s sight. And they were mesmerised by the thought that anyone – let alone an unregistered rabbi with some shady character references – might be able to calm the chaos with mere speech. The promise in Revelation 21 of a new heaven and new earth bereft of sea is indeed good news for those who see in the sea abysmal and godless chaos threatening all that is good in God’s creation. I must confess, however, that being a fisherman I find the thought of a sea-less new creation to be gravely depressing, and any consideration that such a vision may represent a failure of creation’s God to bring into shalom all that God has made is to me an impasse beyond words. But then I wasn’t living on the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 when a tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 16,000 people.

Part of the creation once described as ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31) ­– the seas and the ‘swarms of living creatures’ (Gen 1.20) in them – are, plainly, at least according to the account in Genesis, Elohim’s work. And ‘a wind (or breath or spirit) from Elohim’ (Gen 1.2) sweeps over them. Is this to hold back the mysterious threat, and to remind an ancient people that even the source of their greatest fears exists under the sovereign governance of God? Of course, God can also unleash this threat. Noah’s neighbours knew that, as did an Egyptian army in pursuit of slaves. And then there’s that extraordinary vision in Daniel 7, a passage very influential in early Christianity, a vision of ‘the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts [coming] up out of the sea’ to make war upon God’s people. Here, the sea has become again the dark, formidable, and belligerent place from which evil emerges, threatening the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people as a tidal wave threatens those who live near the coast.

There is indeed mystery here – the ‘earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1) and ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5.19) – and responsible theology proceeds in awareness of this antithetical texture of the Bible’s witness, finding there both the revelation of good and the enduring mystery of evil, and resisting there the temptation to iron out the rough sections or to reconcile them into an easy whole free of paradox. It is that which corresponds in some way to the three-day journey of Golgotha, Holy Saturday, and Easter.

We live ‘betwixt and between’. Our experience of this world, as Scripture testifies, is one marked by ambiguity, by inconsistency, by lives lived well and lives lived poorly in what the philosopher Gillian Rose famously referred to as ‘the broken middle’. We are ‘lost’, like Dante, ‘in a dark wood’ of sin, and waiting for grace. We live, as George Steiner puts it in his remarkable book Real Presences, in ‘the longest of days’, on Holy Saturday – in the space between the memory, trauma, and despair of Good Friday, and the expectant hope of Easter. So Kevin Taylor and Giles Waller: ‘The experience is neither one of nihilism, nor one of bland optimism. It is one in which we learn the difference between optimism and hope, in which we are only able to hope for the best by confronting the worst. As [Thomas] Hardy enjoined, “Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (‘In Tenebris II’)’.

[Image: Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’]

Terry Eagleton on the label ‘evil’

Israeli Daily, 1967‘It is true that morality has been often enough a way of ducking hard political questions by reducing them to the personal. In the so-called war against terrorism, for example, the word “evil” really means: Don’t look for a political explanation. It is a wonderfully time-saving device. If terrorists are simply Satanic, then you do not need to investigate what lies behind their atrocious acts of violence. You can ignore the plight of the Palestinian people, or of those Arabs who have suffered under squalid right-wing autocracies supported by the West for its own selfish, oil-hungry purposes.

The word “evil” transfers the question from this mundane realm to a sinisterly metaphysical one. You cannot acknowledge that the terrible crimes which terrorists commit have a purpose behind them, since to ascribe purposes to such people is to recognize them as rational creatures, however desperately wrongheaded. It is easier to caricature your enemy as a bunch of blood-crazed beasts – a deeply dangerous move, since to defeat an opponent you have first to understand him. The British tabloid press may have seen the IRA as gorillas rather than guerrillas, savages with no rationale for their actions, but British Intelligence knew better. They understood that Republican murders and massacres were not without a purpose. Indeed, to label your enemy as mad is to let him, morally speaking, off the hook, absolving him of responsibility for his crimes’.

– Terry Eagleton, After Theory (New York: Basic, 2003), 141–42.

There he goes, tacking against the fields’ uneasy tides …

[Image: Members of the staff of the Bank of New Zealand, on Lambton and Customhouse Quays, Wellington, gather around the first electronic book-keeping machine installed in the bank, 1960. HT: National Library of New Zealand]

‘The bodice of my new costume caught on the handlebar …’

Donald MacKinnon on the problem of evil

‘If I am honest, I think that I must say that I should cease to believe altogether unless I believed that Jesus had indeed prayed that the hour might pass from him, had indeed been left alone to face the reality of absolute failure. It is fashionable nowadays to speak of Christ as victor, as if the agony and disillusion, the sheer monstrous reality of physical and spiritual suffering which he bore were a mere charade. The idiom of a superficial cosmic optimism, often expressing itself ritually in patterns of liturgical symbolism, is currently fashionable, as if a world that knows, as ours does, extremities of terror as well as hope, could be consoled by a remote metaphysical chatter. But the gospels, including that of John which does not chronicle the episode of Gethsemane, recall our imaginations to a figure prostrate on the earth, afraid and desolate, bidding men and women see in him the ground of all creation.

It is sheer nonsense to speak of the Christian religion as offering a solution of the problem of evil. There is no solution offered in the gospels of the riddle of Iscariot through whose agency the Son of man goes his appointed way. It were good for him that he had not been born. The problem is stated ; it is left unresolved, and we are presented with the likeness of the one who bore its ultimate burden, and bore it to the end, refusing the trick of bloodless victory to which the scoffers, who invited him to descend from his cross, were surely inviting him.

What the gospels present to us is the tale of an endurance. “Christ for us became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” The writer of the fourth gospel invites his readers to find in the tale of this endurance the ultimate secret of the universe itself. For the ground of that universe is on his view to be identified with the agent of that endurance. So his teaching cannot easily be qualified as optimistic or pessimistic. He is no pessimist; for he is confident that we can find order and design, the order and design of God himself, in the processes of the universe and in the course of human history. But if men would understand that design, they must not, in random speculative mood, look away from the concrete reality of Jesus of Nazareth, from the bitter history of his coming and rejection. Where the speculative intellect finds answer to its furthest ranging questions is still the same place where the bruised spirit may find consolation from the touch of a man of sorrows.

To suggest that Christianity deals with the problem of evil by encouraging the believer to view it from a cosmic perspective is totally to misunderstand both the difficulty and the consolation of its treatment. Rather Christianity takes the history of Jesus and urges the believer to find, in the endurance of the ultimate contradictions of human existence that belongs to its very substance, the assurance that in the worst that can befall his creatures, the creative Word keeps company with those whom he has called his own. “Is it nothing unto you all ye that pass by? Behold and consider whether there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” It is not as if the passer-by were invited immediately to assent to the proposition that there was indeed no such sorrow; he is asked to “consider”. It is a profound mistake to present the Christian gospel as if it were something that immediately showed itself, that authenticated itself without reflection. It is of the manner of the coming of Jesus that he comes so close to the ordinary ways of men that they hardly notice him, that they treat him as one of themselves. “There stands one among you whom you know not”: so the Baptist in that same first chapter of John to which I have so often referred. But how, except by coming so close to men, could he succor them? A Christ who at the last descended from the cross must leave the penitent robber without the promise of his company in paradise; and such a Christ we may dare say must also deprive himself of the precious comfort in his own extremity that he received from the gangster beside him; for it was that gangster who in Luke’s record continued with him to the very end of his temptation.

I am not here offering an apologetic, only bringing out certain elements in the complex reality of Christianity that seems to me of central importance. I would say that nobody these days, who is concerned at all with issues of faith and unbelief, can afford to treat them as opportunities for being clever. If men still believe – in spite of the strong, even overwhelming, case of the sceptic – it must be because they find malgré tout [nevertheless] in Christianity the revelation of the eternal God, a revelation that touches them in the actual circumstances of their lives, whether in the common fear of a week of international crisis, or i n the more personal extremities of sin, failure, bereavement, of unresolvable conflict of obligations when they find themselves pulled in two directions by claims of pity and by claims of truth. Is the so-called gospel in any sense good news to one who has bestowed love and care upon another whom he is forced in obedience to the claims of truth to acknowledge as worthless and corrupt? If it has no word of consolation in such extremity, how can we call it good news to the individual? What value is there in a cosmic optimism which leaves unplumbed the depths of human grief?’

– Donald M. MacKinnon, ‘Order and Evil in the Gospel’ in Borderlands of Theology and Other Essays (ed. George W. Roberts and Donovan E. Smucker; Philadelphia/New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1968), 92–4.

Henri Blocher on evil, the cross, and hope

Recently, I’ve been posting on the mystery of suffering and evil (see here, here, here, here and here). And then Kim Fabricius reminded me of Henri Blocher’s Evil and the Cross, a book that I had placed on my bibliography but hadn’t read for many years. It was good to revisit it (thanks Kim!). Here’s a few snipperts:

“The agony of the Christian mind wrestling with the problem of evil seems at first sight a sign of weakness. Is it not an admission of its inability to resolve the principal objection, its powerlessness even to begin chipping away at the ‘rock of atheism’? On reflection, however, we would suggest that things appear differently.

If we bowed to the incomprehensible as a way out every time that we found ourselves in difficulties, there would be grounds for suspicion about such a procedure – it would be sheer irresponsibility, the abdication of reason. People are too ready to fall back on the action of ‘mystery’, and also to confuse mystery with the absurd – which Scripture never does. But we would argue that the mystery of evil is the one unique inscrutable mystery, as unique as evil itself, sui generis. Far from being absurd, it corresponds precisely with the experience of evil, with its two facets: unjustifiable–reality …

We may take these thoughts further. The sense of evil requires the God of the Bible. In a novel by Joseph Heller, ‘while rejecting belief in God, the characters in the story find themselves compelled to postulate his existence in order to have an adequate object for their moral indignation’. Moltmann too has perceived that you suppress all protest against suffering, if you suppress God: ‘Since that time no atheism can fall below Job’s level’. When you raise this standard objection against God, to whom do you say it, other than this God? Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?

We do not understand the why of evil. But we can understand that we cannot understand. Human reason is made to trace the connections in God’s created order, and to weave harmonious patterns from them; to understand means to integrate. A rational solution to the problem of evil would necessarily imply that evil was an integral part of the harmony that came forth from God! Similarly, to go back from sin to its ‘real possibility’, before it came into the world, means applying to it the logic of continuity which obtains in the processes of the creation. But evil is disruption, discontinuity, disorder, alienness, that which defies description in creational terms (except negatively!). Seeking its causal explanation, its ontological reason, its why, is tantamount to seeking, by the very nature of that seeking, to reconcile it with the rest, in other words to justify it. (The ‘rest’ is in fact what is ‘just’.) To understand evil would be to understand that evil is not ultimately evil. The French have a saying, that to understand all is to forgive all; here, understanding all would mean to excuse everything.

Evil is not there to be understood, but to be fought. The absence of any solution to the theoretical problem of the emergence of evil is one side of the coin; the other side, something still more precious than righteous indignation, is the solution to the practical problem of the suppression of evil. What you appear to lose on the speculative level you gain on the existential level. And we have in mind particularly the far horizon of the practical task, the end of evil, something of far greater interest than its origin. Then will end the cries of ‘How long?’ which express a far heavier burden than the cries of ‘Why?’ … If beneath the outward appearance of evil there were hidden something good, why would anyone want to see it disappear? If God were not sovereign, how would he bring under his control what is not dependent on him? If God concealed darkness within himself, how would it not be eternal, like him? But ‘God’s solid foundation stands firm’ (2 Tim. 2:19). When wild hopes disappear into thin air, the foundation of hope comes into view, the sovereignty of the God who fights against evil, and who invites us to join him in the battle.

God battles with evil, and will conquer it. Or rather, God has battled with it and he has conquered it. We have kept the supreme consideration to the end: that other ‘T’ formed by two small beams of wood on the hill called Golgotha, Skull Hill. There the darkness of the mystery deepened, from the sixth hour until the ninth, the place from which shines forth the light.

In the light of the cross, how could there be any doubt about the three propositions [the evil of evil, the lordship of the Lord, the goodness of God; see p. 100] at the heart of the Christian position? The sheer and utter evilness of evil is demonstrated there: as hatred in the mockery of the criminals who also hung there; as hateful in the weight of guilt which could be removed only by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Even if I think of the benefits for myself, when I see my Lord suffering there, I cannot say: Felix culpa. Rather, I feel shame and indignation, against evil and against myself. The complete sovereignty of God is demonstrated there: all this happened ‘by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23), for it was necessary that the Scriptures be fulfilled, those which bore witness to the destiny that the Lord had assigned to his Servant. If there is a revolting ‘scandal’, it is unquestionably that of Judas’s betrayal, and like the squalid reconciliation of Herod and Pilate it accomplished ‘what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ (Acts 4:28). Of no other event is it attested so fully that God ‘willed’ it. The unadulterated goodness of God is demonstrated there. At the cross, who would dare entertain the blasphemy of imagining that God would, even to the slightest degree, comply with evil? It brought him death, in the person of his Son. Holiness stands revealed. Love stands revealed, a pure love; there is no love greater. Because of the cross we shall praise his goodness, the goodness of his justice, the goodness of his grace, through all eternity. At the cross, God turned evil against evil and brought about the practical solution to the problem. He has made atonement for sins, he has conquered death, he has triumphed over the devil. He has laid the foundation for hope.

What further demonstration do we need? …

Just as evil still torments people, casting a dark cloud over their happiness, polluting and plaguing their mind and conscience, so too the problem of evil remains without any rational solution. It is stuck fast in their mind like a thorn, even when that mind has been renewed by grace and belongs to the most faithful disciple … If we look to remove the thorn completely, we simply drive it in deeper, and a poisonous abscess forms, that of some kind of deceitful Gnosticism. The explanations put forward by theologians with the very best of intentions simply amount to concealing the real evil of evil and titivating its ugly horror, even when they do not go so far as to insult the pain of the victims by providing the criminals with excuses. Holy Scripture alone completely resists this temptation. The Bible says nothing which might in the least measure diminish the offence of evil; it refuses any attenuation, whether optimistic or pessimistic. Such faultlessness … is nothing short of miraculous and deserves our notice; it indicates a source of inspiration which is of a different kind from human reflection. What have we discovered?

At the heart lies the inscrutable mystery of the first appearance of evil. Why? How? Where does it come from? It cannot be explained by being made an initial ingredient of existence, or the price that has to be paid, on our microscopic scale, for universal harmony. These so-called solutions, which cut the nerve of human indignation and give cheap relief to the sense of guilt, run straight into the testimony of Scripture. The Lord God is preparing to judge a world that is overflowing with all kinds of abomination – he does not underestimate the gravity of what is intolerable – but on the sixth day of the creation he had rejoiced to behold a created world which ‘was very good’. It contained not the slightest embryonic presence of evil, since it was in its entirety ‘from him and through him and to him’. From the source of goodness there could not flow anything that was bitter (cf. Jas. 3:12). Even less could it be conceived that God would become the accomplice of evil by raising it up for the purpose of acting as his instrument or as a convenient foil.

Then, if it is true that evil arises from the misuse of created freedom, that of the devil and then that of human beings, that does not give us any final explanation either. How was evil born of a freedom that was good? To argue that evil is there and therefore was possible, and that doing evil was a real possibility arising from that freedom, is to cover up the discontinuity of that singular fact – singularly singular. It is completely to pass over its monstrous unwarrantedness; evil is already interpreted as a natural ingredient of existence, if it is taken as something that is consistent with goodness. Scripture bears the opposite testimony, and denies that the human will may ever become independent of God. It is God who rules his creation as sovereign, in accordance with his own design, according to the revelation he has given us in his Word written, even the choices that are aimed against him. The sovereignty of God, which is affirmed times without number in his own revelation, makes his permission of evil an impenetrable mystery.

Divine sovereignty, however, is indispensable to the denunciation of evil, for it alone can guarantee the order with respect to which evil is denounced as disorder. It is short-sightedness together with an absent-minded dash of anthropomorphism which plays with the empty notion of a form of divine sovereignty to which God himself has set limits. It is better to observe that the three branches of the capital T of the biblical doctrine, i.e. the abhorrent nature of evil, the goodness of God, and his absolute sovereignty, assign to evil its position of utter loathsomeness, of being an unjustifiable reality, and ratifies our initial, wholesome reaction against it of shame and indignation.

When we join the book of Job and the ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans by forgoing the rational explanation of the origin of evil, we find ourselves moving on to the answer to the question, ‘What is evil?’ It is, of course, formally defined as something that is contrary to the will of God and yet permitted by him; but if we ask what is its ‘essence’, its ‘nature’, the elucidation runs up against the impenetrability of the mystery. The phenomenon does not belong to the order of the creation; neither is it an independent principle, for it draws its force from the created realm that it corrupts. It is neither really ‘something’ (for it is not from God, from whom all things come forth), nor really ‘nothing’. It is neither a metaphysical datum nor a surface effect that can be easily dispersed. Georges Florovsky commented on this radically disturbing alienness in these terms:

Evil is divided within itself; it is a discord and a disharmony, inordinatio. Evil is ambiguous, unstable, variable. It has no character of its own … Nature itself is affected, nature itself is no longer pure. It is a dynamic disorder, a dynamic or functional perversion which is not yet consolidated in a metaphysical transformation … The existence of evil is a parasitic existence, evil lives by means of good, ex ratione boni. The elements are the same in the original world and the fallen world. But the organizing principle has changed. And although it is dynamic, the perversion is irreversible. Whoever has gone down into the abyss of evil, of his own will, is unable to climb back out.

Here again, theological analysis agrees with the simple experience of ordinary people.

The absence of any theoretical solution … opens the way for the practical answer to the question: ‘Lord, how long? The three inseparable biblical truths form the springboard of hope. They alone authorize us to expect the suppression of evil. But the inscrutable enigma puts forth a horrifying new shoot, which lengthens into the persistence of evil, even its revival, after the death and resurrection of Christ. If the Messiah has come, the Saviour, if he has won the victory over evil, if he has set up his kingdom, how are we to account for the succeeding nineteen centuries? Could the kingdom not have reached us, in spite of Matthew 12:28?

A ray of light pierces the gloom. It comes from the cross. The impenetrable mystery of evil meets the paradoxical mystery of the cross. The mystery of Golgotha is that of the darkness which turns to light, as the Psalmist said, for God and for us – for us by God (Ps. 139:11f.). We understand that we cannot understand, and even a little more. At the cross we find the verification of God’s mastery over evil, of his incorporating it within his plan, of his using evil men, and of his freedom from all suspicion of complicity in it. The mere mention of this last hypothesis, even though it is made in order to brush it aside, is profoundly disturbing, as if we were on the verge of blaspheming. At the cross we find confirmation that evil does not belong metaphysically to the condition of the human race; to a catastrophe in history, God reacts in human history. At the cross is revealed how his kingdom comes about: not by might (of weaponry), or by power (of worldly means), but by the Spirit of sacrifice (Zc. 4:6); not by the subjection of multitudes to slavery, in the manner of the great rulers of this world, but by the service of the Son of Man (Mt. 20:25–28); for the kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36). The way of the kingdom requires that it spread most unobtrusively, by spiritual influence. It conquers people’s hearts, by their unconstrained acceptance of, and adherence to, the Word, its preaching and its call. Hence the stay of execution for the old world, the permission of continuing evil, and the margin of freedom left to the devil who is giving vent to his great fury, for he is aware how little time he has left (Rev. 12:12). Hence the association of the kingdom with the suffering and the patient endurance in Jesus (Rev. 1:9).

But why is the kingdom set up in such a way, if another way could have spared so much weeping, so much bloodshed? We have come to the threshold of the secret and hidden wisdom, revealed by the Spirit, in words taught by the Spirit, and that none of the rulers of this age understood, what has not been conceived by any human mind (1 Cor. 2:7ff.). We have a special wisdom to seek out in the mystery of the cross. Not that this mystery gives us leave to overturn the concepts of orthodox Christian doctrine, such as downplaying the omnipotence of God as stated in Holy Scripture (after the death of Christ, as well as before it), and promoting a ‘powerless God’; that is the kind of ‘wisdom’ that the rulers of this age endorse. The Pied Piper philosophers of our world will gladly take that path, reflecting as it does the vagaries of their humanism, their ideological manoeuvres and their all too human resentment. The wisdom of God in the event of the cross maintains its unique, concrete character, spelt out with total clarity by what the cross achieved: perfect redemption and propitiation. In short, at the cross evil is conquered as evil.

The wisdom of the way of the cross is that it attacks evil according to the ambiguity of its unique nature, and its illegitimate status. If evil simply boiled down to the ‘local’ imperfection of every finite being, exaggerated by an optical illusion, Christ would have had to do no more than teach, or else initiate his disciples into the liberating vision, like a Zen master; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner. If evil were a substance, an entity, comparable to some great power in the created order, it would have been sufficient to deploy a superior force against it, assuming that the opposing parties had enough in common for such a meeting to be conceivable; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner.

At this point a misunderstanding arises for some people. They imagine Christ overcoming the devil at the end of a spiritual duel by his superior strength; or they speak of the elimination of evil, swallowed up by love, as if it were some kind of chemical operation of absorption and dissolution. Scripture is careful to avoid these misleading images. It speaks of the evil one being disarmed by the expiatory blood which alone washes away sins. The power of the devil over human beings is that of accusation, as his name, Satan, the accuser, indicates (Rev. 12:10ff; Col. 2:14f.).

Lastly, if evil corresponded to a necessary moment in the forward movement of a dialectical sequence of events, it would be left behind by its own progression to a higher synthesis. But evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered. Good Friday is anything but speculative. The free sacrifice, unique and once for all, is the reverse of the illustration of the fruitfulness of the Negation in a universal chain of logic. At the cross evil is conquered as evil: corruption, perversion, disorder, a parasite, and yet also weighed down with the load of the people it has led astray and deep in debt from the responsibility incurred.

Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The manoeuvre is utterly unprecedented. No more complete victory could be imagined. God responds in the indirect way that is perfectly suited to the ambiguity of evil. He entraps the deceiver in his own wiles. Evil, like a judoist, takes advantage of the power of the good, which it perverts; the Lord, like a supreme champion, replies by using the very grip of the opponent. So is fulfilled the surprising verse: ‘With the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse’ (Ps. 18:26, NRSV).

It is exactly this, the sin of sins, the murder of the Son, which accomplishes this work in a double manner. It provides the opportunity for love to be carried to its very peak, for there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends (Jn. 15:13). And as this gift contains no element of a romantic suicide (like Tristan or Romeo), the death unjustly inflicted becomes the ‘wages’ earned by the sin of the world, borne by the Lamb of God. It constitutes the ransom paid to liberate sinners, for they are prisoners of the law of God, the One who is Son of God and Son of Man, the head of the new humanity taking upon himself the debt of his own people (Mt. 20:28; Gal. 3:13, 21; Col: 2.14, etc.). It is in this way that he triumphs over sin, guilt and death. It involves a double coincidence. Evil culminates in murder; by taking away the life of the other person, sin brings about the successful conclusion of its essential intention, the rejection of the Lord and of whoever bears his image. By contrast love, which is ‘being for the other person’, culminates in the gift of one’s own life in favour of someone else. Furthermore, the requirement of right order, which is the order of love according to God, is that evil be punished by death, but it permits the brother and head to intervene in love and take over the debt in place of the guilty party. Here lies the mystery of the victory:

I see the depths of my pride, curiosity, concupiscence. There is no link between me and God or Jesus Christ the righteous. But I he was made sin for me. All your scourges fell upon him. He is more abominable than I, and, far from loathing me, feels honoured that I go to him and help him. But he healed himself and will heal me all the more surely [Pascal].

The secret and hidden wisdom of the Lord has caused to coincide the ignoble murder and the act of supreme love of the righteous for the unrighteous, the expiation, by his death in their place, of their sins. At the cross, evil is conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

A more elaborate treatment of evil would expose, in addition to its reversal (the suppression of the other person), the twisted leer of counterfeit love, false love, love in which the warped outlines are still recognizable. It would also show how death, the secret goal of sin from the very beginning (Jn. 8:44; Rom. 8:6), is of necessity the retribution that befalls it, rather than any other punishment; and also how the primacy of love, which is the foundation of humanness, permits the transfer of responsibility. It would thus further elucidate the connection between Calvary and the problem of evil. But we have seen enough to recognize in the mystery of the cross the divine answer to the unanswerable question of evil: de profundis, ‘out of the depths’ (Ps. 130:1), springs light, despite the impenetrability of the enigma.

Such is the glory of the cross that one would be tempted to explain the permission of evil by this end, that love, put to the test, reveals itself in its ultimate intensity. One last time, we must resist the attraction of this thought, for it would cause us to fall back into a pseudo-rational Gnosticism; it would attribute to a holy God a calculating mind which would utterly appal him. We have no other position than at the foot of the cross. After we have been there we are given the answer of the wisdom of God, which incenses the advocates of optimistic theodicies or of tragic philosophies. God’s answer is evil turned back upon itself, conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

This answer consoles us and summons us. It allows us to wait for the coming of the crucified conqueror. He will wipe away the tears from every face, soon“.

– Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain (trans. David G. Preston; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 102–4, 128–33.

Karl Heim on guilt, the absolute evil

‘Guilt alone is the absolute evil, the absolutely terrible and unbearable, the simply irrevocable loss. Compared to guilt all else that may be terrible in the world is very slight indeed. If one weighs guilt against all other suffering in the world, unhappy love which makes life a hell, life-long hard labour in the mines of Siberia, continuous suffering from cancer without any hope but the prospect of a painful death, softening of the brain leading to madness, epilepsy with increasing stupefaction – the guilt will easily outweigh all the other evils in the scale. And if on the other hand we think of all that the world offers by way of good things, then all the riches, power and happiness of the world cannot balance and replace the damage caused by one guilty act’. – Karl Heim, Jesus the World’s Perfector: The Atonement and the Renewal of the World (trans. D.H. van Daalen; Edinburgh/London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), 15.

Makoto Fujimura on art, evil and hope

‘… I find that the theological answer for suffering is not really an answer at all. Rather, the Bible is about looking at evil square in the face and calling it “evil.” All of my work inevitably comes to the questions of wrestling with the question of evil and hope. Of the different ways to address the problem, I think the most effective approach is through the arts, because the question itself is not, fundamentally, a rational question. You need the world of imagination – the language of art – in order to be convincing in wrestling with it. Lamentations is a path to understanding this issue. We in the West don’t know how to lament … I see my art as part of the river of God, made up of God’s tears, which I have in common with a broken world. Rather than offering an idealized landscape for people to look to as an escape from reality, I paint in the ashes. Out of the ashes. From the ashes. And I’m not offering false hope, nor am I offering a nihilistic spiral of despair. Rather, I’m interpreting a longing that is deeply hopefully [sic] and real’. – Wresting With Evil and Hope‘.

I’ve long revered In a (so-far) four-part interview (i, ii, iii, iv) in which he reflects on the significant impact of Nick Wolterstorff’s wonderful work – Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic observes how Wolterstorff’s work is concerned with issues of justice, and with the world’s brokenness. He suggests that art is a fitting medium for mediating conversation about these things. Insofar as art might serve in this capacity, it is, he says, ‘a means for rehumanizing the world’.

In response to the question of what might be the artists’ responsibility towards this end of repairing and rehumanising human culture and the world, and whether Wolterstorff places any such responsibility on artists themselves, he says ‘Yes, and no. Nick is one of the few people who talks about an artist’s responsibility as not the opposite of freedom, but rather that an artist’s freedom is connected to his responsibility in society. To Nick, they’re not disjointed’. he world is drawn to that work which seeks to transform culture’, and to speak of our need to ‘love offensively’.

While it’s certainly not always the case thatto seek those things which transform culture, I thank God for those moments (even in me) when such a reality is realised; for this too is a sign that the kingdom of God is among us, the kingdom which indeed confronts us with an offensive love.

Does evil exist?

In an interview in The Christian Century (January 10, 2006), David Bentley Hart addresses the question ‘Does evil exist?’ His answer:

‘If by “evil exists” you mean that evil possesses a real substance of its own, and that it therefore exists in the way goodness exists (or, for that matter, a tree, a rabbit, an idea or a dream exists), in point of fact Christian tradition has usually denied this quite forcibly. Patristic and medieval thought (drawing, admittedly, on Platonic precedent) defined evil as a privation of the good: a purely parasitic and shadowy reality, a contamination or disease or absence, but not a real thing in itself. This, incidentally, is a logically necessary claim if one understands goodness and being as flowing alike from the very nature of God and coinciding in him as one infinite life. That said, there surely is no contradiction between God’s omnipotent goodness and the reality of evil. It may seem somewhat trite to invoke the freedom of creation as part of the works and ends of divine love, or to argue that the highest good of the creature – divinizing union with God in love – requires a realm of “secondary causality” in which the rational wills of God’s creatures are at liberty; nonetheless, whether the traditional explanations of how sin and death have been set loose in the world satisfy one or not, they certainly render the claim that an omnipotent and good God would never allow unjust suffering simply vacuous. By what criterion could one render such a judgment? For Christians, one must look to the cross of Christ to take the measure of God’s love, and of its worth in comparison to the sufferings of a fallen world. And one must look to the risen Christ to grasp the glory for which we are intended, and take one’s understanding of the majesty and tragedy of creation’s freedom from that’. (HT: RLF)

Slavery and Human Trafficking

‘Twenty-seven million slaves exist in our world today. Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug looms of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings’. So begins the recent title, NOT for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade – and How We Can Fight It by David Batstone. [Reviewed here]

In today’s TimesOnline, Ruth Gledhill draws our attention to a video shot in Zanzibar during the Primates’ Meeting earlier this year in Tanzania. The film was made to promote the Church of England’s Walk of Witness which took place to mark the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Today it won the IPTV award, a £2,000 award for internet television, at the Jerusalem Awards ceremony in London. I’ve embedded it here:

Watching this film, I was reminded of some words from Theissen’s investigator regarding the Essene community:

‘The first thing that I heard about the Essenes was that they reject slavery. They reject it because it is an offence against human equality: they argue that it goes against the law of nature, which bore and brought up all men. All are children of nature. All men are brothers. Riches led them astray, turned trust into mistrust, friendship into enmity. I was fascinated. Where else is there a community which rejects slavery? Nowhere’. – Gerd Theissen, The Shadow of the Galilean: The Quest of the Historical Jesus in Narrative Form (trans. J. Bowden; London: SCM Press, 2001), 47.

While I do not believe that the Church – as the Church – should ever identify itself wholly which any social programme (individual believers are free to so do), the Church is impelled – by the Gospel itself – to be at the forefront of practicing, equipping and celebrating all acts of liberation, compassion, sanity, hope, and justice, of naming all that demeans and devalues life, and to lead the way in repentance when it fails to do so. I think here of such statements made not only by official bodies such as the WCC that ‘all forms of slavery … constitute crimes against humanity’, but also of those made by individual believers, such as PT Forsyth’s 3 moving letters to the Editor of The Times in January 1906 protesting against the British Government’s trafficking of Chinese human beings in South Africa. Another example, he suggests, of the ethical giving way to an economic rationalism gone mad.

Following the UN Protocol on Trafficking, countries have been enacting their own legislation and policies to prevent human trafficking. But at what cost? A new report commissioned by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, has found that many of the strategies to eradicate trafficking are having an adverse affect on the human rights of the very people they are trying to protect. For more, listen to this recent podcast.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets; A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” This is what God the LORD says – he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness’. (Isaiah 42:1-7)

On Annihilationism

It seems to me that one of the problems with the traditional doctrine of hell is its inability to provide for us a vision of creation which in its finality is without evil. Despite all God’s best efforts to sanctify the creation and turn rebels into enchanted sons and daughters, hell, at least in its more popular presentations, remains as the big black line across a page that God has made clean.

The alternatives of universalism and annihilationism raise problems as well. Although I remain convinced that the case for the later, on the basis of biblical exegesis alone, remains the stronger of the two, both reveal a theology deplete of all the revealed ingredients. Whereas the Scriptures seem to rule out the portrait of a final salvation for all, the door of possibility, and of God’s hope – a possibility and hope grounded in the nature of God’s very own being as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures that bear witness to him – finally remains open. Despite the initial attraction of the annihilationist position as that which, at least at the end of the day, leaves every room of the universe without spot or blemish, it does so at the expense of granting evil a final victory. If annihilationism is to be defended, it must face the demon it creates, which is, in the final analysis, that evil has claimed a victim in the creation.

I confess that this topic is an ongoing wrestle for me. ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ I welcome, as always, your thoughts.