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.]

A Review of Theng Huat Leow’s The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth

The Theodicy of Peter Taylor ForsythThe Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth: A “Crucial” Justification of the Ways of God to Man, by Theng Huat Leow. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), xviii + 268pp. ISBN: 9781608994359.

‘To justify God is the best and deepest way to fortify men. It provides the moral resource and stay which is the one thing at last. With open face to see the glory of God in things as they are, to blink nothing of the terror and yet to be sure of the Kingdom of God with all our heart – that is more for the courage of man than any nationalism or any patriotism when heart fails and grief benumbs’. So wrote one of the most able theological minds that Britain produced during the nineteenth century – P. T. Forsyth, in his extraordinarily astute book The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy. What is, perhaps, most remarkable about such a claim is that it was published, as the subtitle indicates, at the height of the Great War, the event in which God, according to Forsyth, entered the pulpit and which brought to the surface again the ‘old dilemma’. But contra the Stoics and Gottfried Leibnitz and Joseph de Maistre, it was Forsyth’s claim that the solution of the great world juncture is at last a provision from God which both taxes all the resources that faith has, and settles faith in a certainty grounded in but finally from outwith history and its moral order – in the world’s moral crisis, in tragedy, in the great divine commedia, in Christ and his cross.

In this well-researched, and clearly-written exposition of Forsyth’s ‘Theodicy’, Theng Huat Leow (Lecturer in Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore) provides an able and constructive introduction to Forsyth’s theological oeuvre via a consideration of a subject of central concern to the Scottish Congregationalist theologian – God’s self justification in the face of evil. And because of Forsyth’s open-textured approach to theology, an approach that refuses the kind of tidiness for which most theology strives, a study like this occasions opportunity to engage with Forsyth’s thinking on a range of subjects, a prospect appropriately exploited by the author. Hence, Leow introduces Forsyth’s thinking on the relationship between evil, sin, and suffering, his appropriation of Martin Luther’s theologia crucis, his understanding of divine election, his conviction that, no matter how ‘devious’ and ‘dreadful’ the way, creation would willingly ‘go through it again at the Father’s will’ for ‘the last things shall crown the first things, and … the end will justify the means’, his ‘Christian universalism’, his constructive and cautious engagement with evolutionary theory, and the important distinction Forsyth makes between God’s primary and secondary acts of judgement, his commitment to divine passibility and to sailing along the rocks of ‘true patripassianism’, his view on the origin of evil, among other subjects. Leow notes Forsyth’s conviction that the problems of evil are ‘essentially insoluble from an intellectual or theoretical perspective’, and considers Forsyth’s approach to theodicy along ‘practical’ and ‘historic’ lines. What this means, as Leow makes plain, is that Forsyth resolves ‘to treat the existence of evil in our world as a given reality, and [to] direct his focus on God’s practical overcoming of it through his act on the Cross’ (p. 180), a move which gives to Forsyth’s theodicy ‘unity, cohesion and groundedness in the historical reality of this world’ and so renders, in Leow’s assessment, Forsyth’s justification of God to be one which ‘far surpasses’ (p. 235) corresponding attempts penned in Forsyth’s day.

Avoiding hagiography, and with judicious editorial judgement, Leow brings Forsyth’s thought into conversation not only with those with whom Forsyth himself was most interested to engage – e.g., G. W. F. Hegel, Wilhelm Windelband, Albert Schweitzer, R. J. Campbell, etc. – but also with more contemporary voices known for their engagement with the subject at hand, such as Albert Camus, Marilyn McCord Adams, David Bentley Hart, Paul Fiddes, Dorothee Sölle, J. K. Mozley, Jürgen Moltmann, and others.

Greatly to be welcomed is Leow’s taking seriously the much-too neglected and ‘subjective aspects’ of the atonement, highlighting, most obviously, the role that prayer – and especially protest prayer – plays in Forsyth’s thought: that it may be God’s will for us to resist God’s will; that to struggle with God is one way of doing God’s will, one way of saying, ‘Thy will be done’; that, as Forsyth would insist in his profound essay The Soul of Prayer, the divine will is ‘to be resisted as much as indulged’.

But a quibble and a most unfortunate miscalculation ought also be noted. Regarding the quibble, curious is Leow’s heavy reliance throughout the book on Richard Bauckham’s reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a near-essential reference, it seems, in any essay on the subject of theodicy. Why then, did he not engage with Dostoyevsky’s characters directly rather than have them mediated through Bauckham’s interpretation?

If my memory serves me correctly, Forsyth’s Justification was my entrée into Forsyth’s corpus. I was a theological abecedarian, it was not an easy read, and I had no Beatrice to guide me. Dr Leow’s book is a Beatrice: but this Beatrice brings along a partner who too often distracts and detracts from the conversation, rather than enhances it, steering it away from its substantial themes and terms and, in so doing, rearranges the parameters of discussion in ways that leave Forsyth, at times, misheard and misrepresented, and with his thought systematised in ways that castrate some of its spirit. This, in my view, is the most substantive setback with Leow’s study. The most apparent candidate for this less-welcome friend is John Hick and his Evil and the Love of God. This is evident in Leow’s frequent – and very odd – description of Forsyth’s theodicy as ‘Irenaean’ (see pp. 188, 195–96, 209, 223, 227–30, passim), and, not unrelatedly, in his suggesting a view of sin that is considerably tamer than is Forsyth’s own. The Aberdonian insisted, in the strongest possible terms, that there could be no Hegelian integration of God’s antithesis into God’s final purposes for the world – ‘Die sin must or God’! To be sure, Leow is aware that for Forsyth there can be no possible compromise at this point (see, for e.g., pp. 17, 237), but, because of the distractions generated by Beatrice’s friend, the implications of that principal conviction struggle to arrive at their proper end.

However, those desiring to engage the questions that give rise to theodicies generally, or those wishing to better understand one of that project’s most daring and able theological minds, ought not allow these criticisms to dissuade them from taking up this composed and valuable study.

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In due course, a version of this review will appear in Colloquium.

David Bentley Hart on God, Creation, and Evil

This past week, the University of Notre Dame has been host to an impressive line up of minds for the Creation out of Nothing: Origins and Contemporary Significance conference. Some of those papers can be listened to here, including David Bentley Hart’s wonderful paper of ‘God, Creation, and Evil’, its concern being to highlight the obvious implications of such for a theology of apokatastasis panton.

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’]

The unseen and unaccountable old joker

Blake - The examination of Job, Satan pours on the plagues of JobA few weeks ago, I drew attention to Catherine Keller’s very creative and provocative book Face of the Deep – a reflection on Genesis 1.2 (‘… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep …’). Keller’s work is a profound and unsettling reminder that ever since the beginning there have been untamed elements which threaten to pull creation apart. And as much as we try to find in Holy Scripture an explanation for such a situation, there is, at the end of the day, none forthcoming.

The Book of Job, more than any other in holy writ, attends to the problems of suffering in the most prolonged and existential way. (One recalls, with some gratitude, what Jean-Paul Sartre made of the book.) But if one approaches that ancient book seeking answers to such problems, one will invariably be disappointed. Indeed, what one encounters there is a kind of gallows humour, what Germans call Galgenhumor. Chapter after chapter feeds a pregnant sense that at any moment now one will become more acquainted not only with Job and his comforters – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – but also with Terry (Jones), John (Cleese), and Michael (Palin). Even the structure of book is a kind of mocking of the deep suffering of one described in the prologue as ‘blameless and upright’, although clearly lacking some discernment in the area of supportive spouse selection. Actually, the prologue is quite outrageous. It might even be ‘the most brutal scene’ in literature – God and Satan playing poker with Job’s life and with that of his family. And the book’s epilogue is equally ridiculous: it reads like a Hollywood script, a crude and tacked-on happy ending which ‘simply ignores all the questions that the rest of the book poses’ (Susan Neiman). It all seems dishonest. It all reads like one big comedy, and it offers no consolation at all for those who wish to find meaning in suffering.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is, quite simply, the best commentary I know on the Book of Job. Melville has, I think, an astonishing sense of what Job is about, and he refuses the pretty ending as if the end might justify the cost of the game. He writes:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.

Keiji Kosaka - Reconciliation in the Midst of DiscontinuityOf course, one of the ways that the Book of Job challenges the sense of life’s meaninglessness – even while adding to such – is by lifting our attention to God’s rhetorical questions recorded in the eleventh-hour chapters, an onslaught of questions which themselves seem only to add to the sense of torment that Job experiences. But what this barrage of questions does accomplish, I think, is to remind us of just how ‘inscrutable’ (to borrow St Paul’s words in Romans 11) the ways of the Lord finally are to us, an inscrutability which ought to give us considerable pause when we ponder life’s apparent meaninglessness.

A sculpture by Japanese artist Keiji Kosaka reminds us that nowhere is such inscrutability and sense of meaninglessness more apparent than in God’s work of reconciliation wherein God experiences in God’s own life the very questions of isolation and meaninglessness which threaten us, which threaten the cosmos, and which perhaps are a threat to God’s existence too – a God who seems to be in danger of being either crushed under the weight of chaos or squeezed out of the world entirely. In no way at all does the cross resolve the problem of evil. Rather, it deepens it, makes it even more confounding, more leviathanic.

The deep work of the cross – central to the church’s proclamation – remains ever a mystery to us. We proclaim it in faith, confident only of our inability to understand its totality and of the promise that accompanies its action – that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, holding at bay those untamed elements in creation, and holding all things together.

A new study on theodicy in the work of PT Forsyth

The arrival of a baby into our world is always an event that calls for thanksgiving and gratitude. This is no less the case around the arrival of that all-too-rare book on some aspect of the theology of P.T. Forsyth. So I am very excited to announce that the midwifery department at Wipf and Stock have just assisted in the birth of a new study on the all-too-neglected Aberdonian. The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth: A “Crucial” Justification of the Ways of God to Man is a revised version of a very thoughtful and carefully-argued doctoral dissertation by my dear friend Theng Huat Leow. The book’s description reads:

The theodicy of the remarkable Scottish Congregationalist theologian Peter Taylor Forsyth has long been recognized as a vital and significant contribution to twentieth-century theology. Up until now, however, there has not been a substantial full-length treatment of Forsyth’s work on the problem of evil. The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth fills this lacuna by setting out, in a fairly systematic and comprehensive manner, Forsyth’s justification of God in the face of evil. In so doing, it also illuminates several other related areas of his thought, such as his epistemology and Christology, as well as his understanding of sin, the atonement, providence, divine passibility, human origins, and the God-world relationship.

Bringing Forsyth’s approach to the subject into conversation with other prominent thinkers like Leibniz, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Moltmann, Hick, Bauckham, and Fiddes, this book also suggests ways in which Forsyth’s justification of God contributes to the current state of Christian theodicy. It highlights Forsyth’s ability to integrate insights from different approaches, even those that have hitherto generally been considered diametrically opposed notions. Forsyth’s theodicy therefore presents an integrative approach to the topic, with every theme flowing from and returning to a clear center: the cross of Christ. As the book also makes clear, Forsyth considers theodicy to be an immensely practical discipline, with significant implications for human life. In every sense, therefore, it constitutes a “crucial” justification of the ways of God to humanity.

Barth on Mozart

‘… Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis [upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any programme. He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little bits of horn, metal and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying and sometimes in harmony. He made use of instruments ranging from the piano and violin, through the horn and the clarinet, down to the venerable bassoon, with the human voice somewhere among them, having no special claim to distinction yet distinguished for this very reason. He drew music from them all, expressing even human emotions in the service of this music, and not vice versa. He himself was only an ear for this music, and its mediator to other ears. He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfilment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshhold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could’.

— Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 297–99.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIV

‘Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never’. (Elie Wiesel. Night, 45).

So penned Elie Wiesel in the moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, homosexuals, or others – meant the death of faith and of God. In fact, as John de Gruchy perceptively notes in his Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God. Yet, paradoxically, the problem can only be handled from the perspective of faith’ (p. 102).

There can be no real argument that ‘suffering is built into the fabric of human existence’ (Ibid., p. 97), and that questions of suffering pose the most real and existentially-alive challenge to belief in God. Suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’ (Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross, p. 28), is both a challenge and opportunity for Christian belief as well as for pastoral ministry because it is held to demonstrate the logical incoherence of Christianity.

One of the most influential novels of last century was The Plague (1947) by the French-Algerian author, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus (1913–1960). The Plague recalls a plague (oddly enough) which is causing untold suffering and death, underscoring the universal condition of humankind. Dr Reuss, the main character, a compassionate physician, says at one point, ‘Since … the world is shaped by death mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?’ (p. 128.). Elsewhere there is a scene where a priest, an unbeliever and the doctor surround the bed of a little boy who is dying. He suffers in pain. The priest asks God for help: ‘My God, spare this child’ (p. 217). The boy dies. Later the priest declares, ‘That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand’. The doctor responds: ‘“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture”’ (p. 218).

At another time, Camus was returning home from church when a six year old girl asked him why little girls starve in Africa while she has plenty to eat: ‘Doesn’t God love them as much as he does me?’ His inability to provide an answer birthed the conclusion that there was no God. To this, C.S. Lewis may have replied (as he did in The Problem of Pain) that

‘The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased”. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled, by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable’. (p. 36)

On 4 June 1886, T.H. Huxley penned a letter to a Sir John Skelton. The letter concluded with these words: ‘… there is amazingly little evidence of “reverential care for unoffending creation” in the arrangements of nature, that I can discover. If our ears were sharp enough to hear all the cries of pain that are uttered by men and beasts, we should be deafened by one continuous scream! And yet the wealth of superfluous loveliness in the world condemns pessimism. It is a hopeless riddle’ (Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, in Three Volumes, 2:353). Again, the question of suffering is unquestionably among the most difficult for faith, and so for pastoral ministry. So Jürgen Moltmann in The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God: ‘It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’ (pp. 47, 49). So too Lance Morrow, in a Time Magazine article entitled ‘Evil’:

‘The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell asks, ‘What kind of God is this? Any decent religion must face the question squarely, and no answer is credible that cannot be given in the presence of dying children’. Can one propose a God who is partly evil? Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz as a child, suggests that perhaps God has ‘retracted himself’ in the matter of evil. Wiesel has written, ‘God is in exile, but every individual, if he strives hard enough, can redeem mankind, and even God himself’’.

This situation is, in Moltmann’s words, ‘the open wound of life’ in which honest pastoral ministry happens. In the post-Auschwitz world, questions of suffering and theodicy have determined, dominated and challenged theology. As Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein put it in After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism:

‘I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps. I am amazed at the silence of contemporary Jewish theologians on this most crucial and agonizing of all Jewish issues. How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept’. (p. 171)

And others too have asked:

‘You will sooner or later be confronted by the enigma of God’s action in history’. (Elie Wiesel, in One Generation After, as Cited in Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy, p. 327)

‘Given the classical theological positions of both Judaism and Christianity, the fundamental question posed by the Holocaust is not whether the existence of a just, omnipotent God can be reconciled with radical evil. That is a philosophical question. The religious question is the following: Did God use Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as his agents to inflict terrible sufferings and death upon six million Jews, including more than one million children?’ (Ibid., p. 327)

‘The God of Holy Nothingness is ‘omnipresent’, although not in the usual sense meant by theologians. This God resides within destruction. The Holy Nothingness generates this-world and its vicissitudes from out of its own fecund plenitude. Yet, a God so involved in the world and its attendant suffering becomes deeply complicit and can only invite the wrath and enmity of her aggrieved children’. (Zachary Braiterman, (God) after Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, pp. 99–100)

And Martin Buber, in On Judaism, asks, ‘How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz?’ He acknowledges that one might still ‘believe in’ a God who permitted the Shoah to happen, but he questions the possibility of hearing God’s word, let alone entering into an I-Thou relationship with God: ‘Can one still hear His word? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?’ (p. 224).

And we could go on, citing proposed responses from Epicures, from David Hume, from Gottfried Leibniz, from John Stuart Mill, from Richard Dawkins, from C.S. Lewis, from Thomas Aquinas, from David Bentley Hart, and from others. But the intro to this post has been long enough to introduce the point that one of the surprising features of life for many when they enter the ministry is confrontation with grief and suffering of immense depth. The pastor dare not trot out glib answers which only increase the suffering and betray her or his lack of understanding. But does this mean that pastors can only, and/or must, remain silent? Yes and No.

Enter one qualified to help pastors out at this point – the Lutheran pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). And I want to draw here upon John S. Conway’s fine essay, ‘A Meditation upon Bonhoeffer’s Last Writings from Prison’ in Glaube – Freiheit – Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburtstag (ed. Katarzyna Stokłosa and Andrea Strübind; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 235–44.

One of the most radical challenges to the traditional views of God’s omnipotence and of divine impassibility has come from Bonhoeffer’s pen. On 19 December 1944, from his bleak underground prison in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin, Bonhoeffer sat down to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer (For more on their correspondence, see Love Letters from Cell 92). In what was to be his final greeting, Bonhoeffer included in that letter a poem to be shared with his parents. The poem, which has been made into a wonderful hymn known as ‘By Gracious Powers’, reads like this:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
And pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate to thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal pæan [song of triumph], in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day! (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

These seven short verses bespeak of Bonhoeffer’s trust in God’s enduring and comforting presence during what was the sixth Christmas season of the war and a time of impending and overwhelming disaster. By this time, Bonhoeffer had already been in Tegel prison for nineteen months, mainly in Cell 92. He had been arrested in April 1943 on suspicion of being involved in smuggling Jewish refugees into Switzerland. The investigations had dragged on without resolution for a year and a half. But then in October 1944 he had been transferred to the far more ominous Interrogation Centre of the Gestapo’s main headquarters in downtown Berlin. He now faced the even more severe charges of abetting the conspiracy which had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler a few months earlier. He would likely be arraigned before the Chief Justice of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, whose vindictiveness had already sentenced thousands to death for treason against the Reich, and was to do the same to Dietrich’s brother, Klaus. In the meantime the Gestapo was relentlessly trying to entrap him into incriminating confessions about his friends and relatives. What kind of a faith could withstand such ruthless pressures and still witness to God’s powers of goodness?

In this context, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts revolve around the cumulative and appalling suffering of so many people at this crucial stage of the war. From his contacts with the anti-Nazi resistance, he had learnt of the dreadful crimes committed by his countrymen against millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, gypsies and the mentally handicapped. He was equally aware that millions of his own countrymen, including members of his family, had been misled into losing their lives in the service of the Reich’s machinery of violence. How could this suffering be reconciled with a loving Christ? Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God intervene to put a stop to it? It was just at this critical juncture that Bonhoeffer heard the news that the planned assassination of Hitler had failed. The likely consequences were all too clear, and the tone of his thinking and writing was from then on increasingly filled with foreboding. His preoccupation with suffering and death becomes even more forceful. The imagery and significance of Christ’s crucifixion became ever more real. Out of this came his shortest, but perhaps most memorable, poem, written in the same month, ‘Christians and Others’:

Men go to God when they are sore bestead [placed],
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving. (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

This poem arose out of Bonhoeffer’s bible readings and meditations on the subject of suffering. He was certainly not just preoccupied with his own fate, but rather overwhelmed by the lethal prospects which all his friends in the resistance movement now faced. He knew enough about personal anguish to give authenticity to his statements on suffering. His purpose was to clarify his understanding of a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross.

The poem opens with the universal human desire for relief, for removal of pain, for cessation of suffering, for an end to hunger, for the cleansing of a guilty conscience, for deliverance from death. This makes their religion a form of spiritual pharmacy. But all too often these prayers are not answered. By 1944 the mass murders seemed unstoppable. And Bonhoeffer interpreted the events as Christ being tortured and crucified anew but this time on Nazi Golgothas. Why did God not respond to such heartfelt petitions? Why does it seem that heaven is silent?

Bonhoeffer proposed something of a response to these kinds of questions in his letter dated 16 July 1944:

‘The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and this is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 [‘This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”‘] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering’. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 134)

Bonhoeffer argues that to be a Christian is to stand by Christ in his hour of grieving, on the cross, in jail, in the bombed-out streets and concentration camps. This is a reversal of what ‘religious’ people typically expect.

So Bonhoeffer:

‘Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age … opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness’. (ibid)

Abraham Heschel, in his brilliant work The Prophets, helpfully reminds us that for the Hebrew prophets, ‘divine ethos does not operate without pathos … [God’s] ethos and pathos are one. The preoccupation with justice, the passion with which the prophets condemn injustice, is rooted in their sympathy with divine pathos’ (1:218). So we read in Isaiah 63.9–10,

In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
But they rebelled and grieved his holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
and himself fought against them.

God suffers because God is holy love. If God were incapable of wrath, of being moved to grief by injustice and oppression, God would not be holy; if God were incapable of suffering, of being moved to grief by the pain and agony of the victims of society, God would not be omnipotent love. In his The Crucified God, Moltmann draws out the connection between the wrath and the love of God as grounded in the life of covenant:

‘[If] one starts from the pathos of God, one does not think of God in his absoluteness and freedom, but understands his passion and his interest in terms of the history of the covenant. The more the covenant is taken seriously as the revelation of God, the more profoundly one can understand the historicity of God and history in God. If God has opened his heart in the covenant with his people, he is injured by disobedience and suffers in the people. What the Old Testament terms the wrath of God does not belong in the category of the anthropomorphic transference of lower human emotions to God, but in the category of the divine pathos. His wrath is injured love and therefore a mode of his reaction to men. Love is the source and the basis of the possibility of the wrath of God. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. Indifference towards justice and injustice would be a retreat on the part of God from the covenant. But his wrath is an expression of his abiding interest in man. Anger and love do not therefore keep a balance. ‘His wrath lasts for the twinkling of an eye,’ and, as the Jonah story shows, God takes back his anger for the sake of his love in reaction to human repentance. As injured love, the wrath of God is not something that is inflicted, but a divine suffering of evil. It is a sorrow which goes through his opened heart. He suffers in his passion for his people’. (pp. 171–2)

 

God grieves, then, because of the rebellion of his people; God grieves because of the broken relationship between himself and his creation; God grieves because of the inevitable consequences of human sin and rebellion; God grieves because he remembers what might have been; God grieves because love always hopes! Moltmann talks about the way that God is ‘injured by disobedience and suffers in the people’ who deserve their suffering, but what of the victims of their injustice? What of those who because of the faithlessness of the people of God find it difficult to believe in God?

de Gruchy is helpful here. Again from Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis:

‘… it is not so much God who is beyond belief, but the church which has lost its credibility. Indeed, if God has become a problem it is precisely because those who claim to believe in God have too often denied him in practice. The credibility of the church’s testimony today is bound up not so much with its intellectual ability to defend the faith, to solve the theodicy problem as traditionally stated, … but far more with the willingness of the church to participate in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world. And this means to share in the struggle for justice. To be sure, the justification of God can only be resolved eschatologically, but that takes place penultimately in history through authentic witness to the kingdom of God. The God in whom we believe, the God revealed in the crucified Messiah, the God who is present even when he is experienced as absent, and absent when we think he is present, this God has opted to be on the side of those who suffer because of the oppression of others’. (p. 123)

And de Gruchy helpfully reminds us that the suffering of God described so poignantly and powerfully in the Old Testament is not just grief caused by a sinful and disobedient people; it is also suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer as a result of Israel’s sin – the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the lowly and innocent ones (see p. 113). And he cites from Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, p. 108: ‘The human cry becomes God’s cry, God takes up the human cry and makes it God’s own’. This is precisely what Bonhoeffer, in Discipleship, called God’s ‘hour of grieving’, an hour in which and a grieving of such that God invites his people to participate. The church is not simply the community of Christ which suffers vicariously for others. It is also itself the suffering church and itself the victim of oppression.

Certainly Bonhoeffer knew well that the sufferings and deaths he was daily made aware of could not be ascribed to the moral failings of the individuals concerned. Rather these tribulations had, and have, to be understood as the result of collective human willful sinfulness. But God has not withdrawn into a remote impassivity. Rather, God suffers alongside his creation. To repeat:

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread …

 

The depths of divine suffering are reached in the cross where God finds himself ‘whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead’.

 

So what should the responses of Christians, and of pastors, be? Not like others, who merely pass by, to whom the sight of a dead Jew on a cross is nothing. But Christians in this situation of crisis have a particular and significant calling. As Bonhoeffer notes in the last line of verse 2: ‘Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving’. In a letter written to his friend Eberhard Bethge shortly after the poem was completed, Bonhoeffer expanded on this line:

‘This is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’. That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘worldly’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53 now …

This being caught up into the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners, in ‘conversions’ in the narrower sense of the word (e.g. Zacchaeus), in the act of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7) – an act that she performed without any confession of sin – in the healing of the sick (Matt. 8.17; see above), in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are. The centurion of Capernaum (who makes no confession of sin) is held up as a model of faith (cf. Jairus). Jesus ‘loved’ the rich young man. The eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) are not standing at the edge of an abyss. Nathaniel is ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile’ (John 1:47). Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith’. There is nothing of religious method here. The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life’. (Letters and Papers from Prison), pp. 135–6)

But where shall we find the strength and the grace to become such disciples? Verse 3 of the poem boldly asserts that, despite the sins we have all committed, despite the barriers we have all erected, despite all our efforts to behave like others, religiously, nevertheless God visits all people in their distress:

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.

The second line here draws our attention to the eucharist where by sharing with us his body and his blood, Christ draws us into his pain and suffering. To repeat from the poem which we began our discussion on Bonhoeffer with:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

Here we are reminded of what Bonhoeffer explores more fully in Discipleship, namely that in his total identification with humanity in incarnation, and then by calling us into fellowship and discipleship with himself, Christ bids us to ‘come and die’.

‘The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him to deliberately run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life. The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord. But there is another kind of suffering and shame which the Christian is not spared. While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city. But he would certainly break down under this burden, but for the support of him who bore the sins of all. The passion of Christ strengthens him to overcome the sins of others by forgiving them. He becomes the bearer of other men’s burdens – ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2). As Christ bears our burdens, so we ought to bear the burdens of our fellow-men. The law of Christ, which it is our duty to fulfil, is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share. Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Chrislike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.

But how is the disciple to know what kind of cross is meant for him? He will soon find out as he begins to follow his Lord and to share his life.

Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passive, suffering because we have to suffer. That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church, and one of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the Augsburg Confession similarly defines the Church as the community of those ‘who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake’. If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow Him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross and all the offense which the cross brings in its train.

Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. It is a joy and token of his grace. The acts of the early Christian martyrs are full of evidence which shows how Christ transfigures for his own the hour of their mortal agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of his presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for his sake, they are made partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with him. To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for him’. (pp. 43–6)

In October, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the far more ominous and menacing Gestapo prison in central Berlin. But the evidence that we have is that his own faith and trust in his crucified Lord led him to identify more and more with the future hope of resurrection beyond death. So he could therefore face the inevitable testing through suffering by affirming his belief in God’s guiding hand, and the assuredness of God’s nearness. In his final poem ‘By the powers of Good’, the central verse takes up this issue:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand’ (A Grief Observed, 23). And yet the task of providing consolation has always been a significant part of the work of a pastor. It is, in many ways, a task among the most difficult for the pastor. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering.

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderfully-moving Lament for a Son:

‘What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with wNicords of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.” (pp. 34–5)

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Church takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff again:

‘Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench’. (p. 63)

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Church is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word! Moltmann’s The Crucified God is characteristically helpful here:

‘The cross of Christ is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when [human beings] are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. This is essential if they wish to become what they assert they are: the church of Christ, and Christian theology … Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplice of oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence … In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian’. (pp. 1, 3, 7)

‘We must not only ask whether it is possible and conceivable that one man has been raised from the dead before all others, and not only seek analogies in the historical structure of reality and in the anticipatory structure of reason, but also ask who this man was. If we do, we shall find that he was condemned according to his people’s understanding of the law as a ‘blasphemer ‘ and was crucified by the Romans, according to the divine ordinance of the Pax Romana, as a ‘rebel.’ He met a hellish death with every sign of being abandoned by his God and Father. The new and scandalous element in the Christian message of Easter was not that some man or other was raised before anyone else, but that the one who was raised was this condemned, executed and forsaken man. This was the unexpected element in the kerygma of the resurrection which created the new righteousness of faith’. (p. 175)

‘This deep community of will between Jesus and his God and Father is now expressed precisely at the point of their deepest separation, in the godforsaken and accursed death of Jesus on the cross’. (pp. 243–44)

‘The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being’. (pp. 204, 205)

So in the face of death, suffering and grief, the Church is called to:

  1. point to Jesus, the Crucified God, who reveals God’s endangering goodness and suffering love;
  2. participate in God’s cruciform life by suffering with those who suffer and working to relieve and eliminate suffering. Such cruciformity constitutes the ethical dimension of the theology of the cross found throughout the NT and the Christian tradition. Paradoxically, because the living Christ remains the crucified one, cruciformity is Spirit-enabled conformity to the indwelling crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, life-giving love of God that was displayed on the cross. Although cruciformity often includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity – like the cross – is about faithfulness and love.

Many of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

But there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’ (cited in John W. de Gruchy, Cry Justice: Prayers, Meditations, & Readings from South Africa, 23). A Christian response to evil is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat evil as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision. Only to the extent that we can confess that nothingness has been vanquished in the self-nihilation of Christ, and met with, struggled with, and overcome may we say that we ‘know’ something of sin and evil’s reality, and be able to speak hopefully of its end.

Finally, for now, the continuity/discontinuity of Jesus’ resurrection provides the ontological basis for Christian hope, promising that of whatever post-resurrection life consists, it is hope in something other than endless continuity. And as meaningful as life’s plots and subplots might be, it is the end (and the more improbable the better) that confers meaning on the whole. It is to bear witness to this end that pastors labour.

◊◊◊

Other posts in this series:

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.

God on Trial: The Verdict

Recently, I mentioned that I am preparing some lectures on Theodicy, Suffering and Faith. I then posted a bibliography, one reference in which was to Frank Cottrell Boyce’s and Andy DeEmmony’s film God on Trial. I watched this film for the first time a few weeks back. Here’s the most memorable part:

Theodicy, Suffering and Faith: A Bibliography

Thanks so very much to all readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem who took the time to contribute a richly-helpful smorgasboard of readings and films in response to my previous post. This has been enormously helpful (and encouraging) and I’ve spent much of today checking out some of these suggestions (including some really obvious ommissions to my original list) and building a fuller list which I hope to keep adding to in the coming months. Again, additional suggestions are most welcome.

Books/Essays

Film

[Updated: 26 April 2010]

Theodicy and Suffering

‘Many times we have to suffer very acutely until we finally quit being like a crustacean that sits in its hard shell and is always alone with its own self, caring for nothing going on around it. Isn’t there a special kind of religious hardshell?  Some have never observed that God is always God for all others and that he is not nearly so interested in the life of our individual souls, as in the birth of a community in which individuals think about others and practice this concern continually in intercession and thanksgiving. God is incomparably interested in that’. So wrote Eduard Schweizer in a sermon on suffering, published in God’s Inescapable Nearness, a wee collection of sermons that I’ve been reading during a brief interlude between preparing lectures on different topics.

I’m about to start preparing some lectures on what is most certainly among the most difficult of theological subjects; namely, theodicy and suffering. So far, I’m considering pulling together some selected readings from a number of places, including the following:

So at this point I’m requesting some help: Where else might I be looking? What other resources (film, poetry, opera, etc) might be useful here to help pastors think faithfully about these difficult questions and to encourage some fruitful conversation?

Series – Theodicy: The Justification of God

Here’s the links to the series of studies by Trevor Faggotter based on PT Forsyth’s, The Justification of God:

Theodicy: The Justification of God – 11

THE CONQUEST OF TIME BY ETERNITY

Study 11

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

Take courage; I have conquered the world! – Jesus (John 16:33b)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… (Hebrews 11:1)

‘…eternity is doing far more for time than time is doing for eternity’ (P.T. Forsyth)[1]

Aware of the complexities of life, the tragedy of war on a global scale, satanic power, and the blindness of humanity among nations, faith sees Jesus! The Justification of God is written that the church might re-establish a renewed confidence in Jesus Christ, and the gospel, on a grand scale. P.T. Forsyth confidently asserts his gospel convictions:

Faith is more than an individual calm; it is the Church’s collective confidence on the scale of the world for the destiny of the world. The evil world will not win at last, because it failed to win at the only time it ever could. It is a vanquished world where men play their devilries. Christ has overcome it. It can make tribulation, but desolation it can never make.[2]

ALL THINGS ARE YOURS[3]

The writing of P.T. Forsyth continues to be a highly valuable gift to the church. Forsyth belongs to us. Our appreciation of Forsyth’s enduring theodicy, should serve us well in our ministries – bearing faithful witness to Christ, in the face of all things.

All things are ours, even that victory, that elevation over a world’s sin in us; and our very relapses cannot rob us of it. It is easy to believe with a poor sense of what the holy is, of what it makes sin to be, of what the world is, and can do, for the devil. But it needs the supernatural courage of the Cross to believe (at such an hour as this, say,) in the completeness of the Cross and its eternal victory. But there, the more horror, the more hope. The most damning light is the saving light. Therefore, the more holy fear, the more the Cross is working in us; and the sense of the Cross’s judgment is the effect of its grace.[4]

In 1 Corinthians 3:21, Paul – having warned his hearers against following party or theological factions – reminds the church that we can learn from and make good use of all things – For all things are Yours! Forsyth may not say everything well.[5] However, he belongs to us. And we can learn much from him. Forsyth himself, skillfully attributed measured praise to the negative, critical work of the German philosopher – Friedrich Nietzsche,[6] who felt as millions feel, that life culminated in its tragic experiences, and that whatever solved the tragedy of life solved all life.[7] Sadly Nietzsche, a vehement critic of Christianity, suffered debilitating mental illness towards the end of his life. Forsyth comments upon this influential man’s failure to find his answers in the cross of Christ (a salient warning, I think):

To grasp the real, deep tragedy of life is enough to unhinge any mind which does not find God’s solution of it in the central tragedy of the Cross and its redemption.[8]

Our plethora of ‘why’ questions concerning injustice and the matter of evil, are resolved in the action of Christ’s cross.  For especially here, Jesus gives active praise to the Father, for the rightness of his just and true judgments, as he personally and willingly enters the furnace of God’s holy judgment upon sin, and bears the guilt and evil of humanity. We can replicate the observations of Jesus early ministry, now applying them to his cross, and the fruit of that event for all eternity: ‘He has done everything well.‘ (Mark 7:37).

FAITH IN CHRIST FOR ALL CIRCUMSTANCES OF LIFE

In the light of:

  1. The worst evil – murdering Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Author of Life, and
  2. The best news of all – the resurrection of Jesus as Man, which opened possibilities, and a reality, not previously dreamed of,

the early church knew that all things were working together for good for those who loved God and were called according to his purpose. They learned to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  Through the cross, understood by faith, in the power of the Holy Spirit the church down through history is assured that nothing is outside of God’s control, nothing is exempt from being used for the purposes of God.[9]

Life begins as a problem, but when it ends well it ends as a faith: a great problem, therefore a great faith. Ordinary experience gives us the first half, it sets a problem; but the second half, the answer of faith to us, comes from God’s revelation of grace. As we here pass from the one to the other it should be on large lines, not that we may simply descant on life in a literary way, but that we may magnify the greatness of Christ.

FORSYTH’S CLOSING RÉSUMÉ

The final chapter is a résumé of all that Forsyth has been writing about in this book. He expands upon the following 9 essential points:

  1. ‘Life, then, is a problem. If offers a task rather than an enjoyment. The soul must be achieved. The kingdom is above all a gift, but it is also a conquest. We are here to fight the good fight rather than to have a good time. The people to whom life is only an excursion, a picnic, a stroll, or a game grow more and more outlanders in society.[10]
  2. The problem of life is tragic, and no mere riddle. It is not a war game. ‘We are in no Kriegspiel,[11] but in the real thing always. It touches the nerve.’[12] ‘Life is not a seductive puzzle; it is a tragic battle for existence, for power, for eternal life’.[13]
  3. There is a solution to the problem. Our battle is not a sport for heaven. The solution is given to us rather than won by us. Already done and not merely shown.
  4. The solution is practical, not philosophical. It is not really an answer to a riddle but a victory in a battle. A life problem cannot be thought out but lived out. Man conquers by faith and not by philosophy.[14]
  5. The practical solution of life by the soul is outside life. The destiny of experience is beyond itself. The lines of life’s moral movement and of thought’s nisus converge in a point beyond life and history.[15]
  6. This world is only complete in another; it is part and prelude of another, and runs up into it, and comes home in it as body does in soul. What is meant when we speak of another world? We do not mean only one that begins at death. We do not mean a new tract of time beyond the grave, but another order, another dimension, of things, that both haunts the precincts and fills the spaces of this life always.
  7. All the crises of His [Jesus’] life, I have been saying, had themselves a crisis in His death, where the victory and the solution was won once for all. He did not cheer the disciples with the sanguine optimism of the good time coming. It was not a sanguine optimism, but an optimism of actual faith and conquest. It was not the hope of a conquering Messiah soon. ‘He is here,’ was the Gospel.[16]
  8. The solution in the Gospel is wrought once for all because it was on a world scale, an eternal scale, because He, and He alone of all men, was on such a scale. He was on a scale, which made the New Testament writers give Him not only a human and historic influence but a cosmic, nay, an absolute. He was to command not only the race but the universe, and save not only the soul but the whole groaning and travailing creation.[17]
  9. Trust God. ‘We cannot solve life by moral thought or effort but by trust, which unites us with the invincible, eternal, moral act of God in Christ. Christianity is not the sacrifice we make, but the sacrifice we trust; not the victory we win, but the victory we inherit … Christ crucified and risen is the final, eternal answer to the riddle of life. One day, when we sit in heavenly places in Christ, we shall see the tangle of life unroll and fall into shape. We shall see death as the key of life. Our own dead could tell us so already. We shall see guilt destroyed; and, with that, death, wrong, darkness, and grief’.[18]

FAITH GREATER THAN THOUGHT

Forsyth’s profound thought rouses us to give our own thought process a solid workout. However, the relationship between thought and faith, is an important one to understand:

Thought is a mighty and precious power, but on the last things it does more to enlarge our field than to steady our feet. It gives us range, not footing; a horizon rather than a foundation. It does not establish the soul, but widens its vision. It extends our reach more than it fixes our grasp. It therefore often magnifies the problem rather than solves it. Truly, that is a great service. To greaten the problem is to prepare for a great answer. Faith is not there as an asylum for those who are too lazy or shallow to think. But, though thought may tax faith mightily, it cannot do its work. It gives it a grand challenge, but it has not faith’s final word.[19]

Rich thought can certainly expand our horizons, but faith steadies our feet, causing us to stand firm, securely, in the strength of the Lord’s power (Ephesians 6:10-18):

There is something that gives us power to live and conquer, where thought may only raise challenge and doubt. Thought opens a world ahead of us, but faith forces us back into the soul and its case. Faith must be more conservative than thought; for it is deeper. The vaster the world that thought opens, the vaster is the question it puts; and the answers, the solutions, that fitted a small world, go out of date in a large. But the solution, the secret, of the soul, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is Christ dead and risen that has the key of life. It is living faith in His living, giving, and saving God.[20]

It is good to finish our study book! Faith fortified. Yet, of making many books, there is no end. Much study is a weariness of the flesh (Eccl. 12:12). Jesus said: You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life (John 5:39-40).

TO THE LAST WORD – LET US COME!

We only ever say second-to-last words; God, the Word always has the last Word. So then, let us come to the Word, Jesus Christ in faith, in prayer, in praise and thanks, resting in His finished work, assured of the glorious future, glorified in Him: Thank you Lord, for your servant, P.T. Forsyth! May his writing and insight continue to be a blessing, to many! Jesus you said: be of good cheer. Jesus, you have overcome the world, triumphed over the power of evil, and secured eternal life. You are our future, and our Life. Amen.


[1] P.T. Forsyth, This Life and the Next, London Independent Press Ltd., 1918 (1948), p. 81.

[2] P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, Blackwood, 1988, p. 223.

[3] For the wide application of this short biblical phrase, I am very grateful to Geoffrey C. Bingham, All Things are Yours, NCPI, Blackwood, 1991 (1996).

[4] P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, pp. 222-223.

[5] Indeed Forsyth’s final book commends prayers for the dead, and displays a troublesome tendency towards Universalism:  See P.T. Forsyth, This Life and the Next, London Independent Press Ltd., 1918 (1948). It is worthwhile reading it. But many will have strong reservations about some of his statements. [NB. Not all of Forsyth’s readers are as dismissive and unappreciative of his insights in This Life and the Next as Faggotter is here.]

[6] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a significant influence in the establishment of an understanding of life known as Existentialism. This is a movement in philosophy that says that it is not God, bur rather individuals, that create the meaning of their own lives.

[7] P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 210.

[8] P.T. Forsyth, p. 210.

[9] P.T. Forsyth, p. 4.

[10] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, pp. 208ff.

[11] Kriegspiel: A full-scale war game between two nations.

[12] P.T. Forsyth,, p. 209.

[13] P.T. Forsyth, p. 209.

[14] P.T. Forsyth, p. 211.

[15] P.T. Forsyth, p. 212.

[16] P.T. Forsyth, p. 219.

[17] P.T. Forsyth, p. 219.

[18] P.T. Forsyth, pp. 220-221.

[19] P.T. Forsyth, p. 211.

[20] P.T. Forsyth, pp. 211-212.

Theodicy: The Justification of God – 10

HISTORY AND JUDGMENT

Study 10

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

If we don’t change our course, we’ll end up where we’re headed. – Chinese proverb

Down one road lies disaster, down the other utter catastrophe. Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose wisely. – Woody Allen

Perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment (1 John 4:18b).

YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW

In our reading of The Justification of God, from 1917, it is important that we distill the wisdom P.T. Forsyth imparts, and give application to the unique circumstances of our own day. Theology is best when it is doxology.[1] Praise to God – in thinking and serving anew amidst today’s world – is the life we are called to share in.  Forsyth saw the necessity of engaging in public affairs:

It has always been the bane of theology when it has been isolated from the course of public affairs, and left neutral to the issues of history – when it has been otherworldly.[2]

Take one example: oil consumption is one of our many pressing global problems – where injustice, politics, greed and war, are very real factors to reckon with.

March 31st, 2008 “It’s no secret anymore that for every nine barrels of oil we consume, we are only discovering one.”
– The BP Statistical Review of World Energy. The world is addicted to oil. In just 8 years, it’s projected the world will be consuming nearly 50,000 gallons of oil every second. By that time, the world won’t be able to meet the projected demand… for one simple reason: We’re using up oil at breakneck speed.[3]

Investors are advised to put their hopes and dollars into a variety of other forms of energy stocks, including solar power, steam-engines (water), nuclear fuel, and so on. But can a sage of yesteryear, like P.T. Forsyth, be of any use to us at this point? These were not his issues. Does his theology – his thought and Word concerning God carry any weight here? We say, ‘yes, it certainly does’. Thoughtfulness, trust, prayer and a working theodicy, are meant to serve us well, as we address the crisis in life and any overwhelming set of worldwide, or local circumstances in which we find ourselves placed.

FACING A FOREBODING FUTURE WITHOUT FEAR

Fear of what may happen in the future affects the way we live out our lives. Fear itself produces certain effects in the course of history. Self-preservation, greed, fear of other nations, cultures and of people generally; fear of engaging in community life, turning in upon oneself[4], the quest for meaning (in all the wrong places), the pursuit of a self-styled happiness, frustration and anger at the inability to achieve personal goals, and various reckless and harmful forms of personal and community abuse, hastening onwards unabated – such issues are very much the staple diet of many of today’s people. Underneath is all is the lifelong fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).

Undoubtedly the scientific, industrial and political search for practical and appropriate solutions must continue. But can overwhelming concern with such fear, be the wisest, and most urgent of pursuits? Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding”. In his writings, Forsyth has been calling his readers to unearth more in the cross of Christ, than they have previously seen or known. Within our current history, we need to see the outworking of the cross as it bears upon the issues and thinking of all people within our global village:

The non-intervention of God bears very heavy interest, and He is greatly to be feared when He does nothing. He moves in long orbits, out of sight and sound. But He always arrives. Nothing can arrest the judgment of the Cross, nothing shake the judgment-seat of Christ. The world gets a long time to pay, but all the accounts are kept-to the uttermost farthing. Lest if anything were forgotten there might be something unforgiven, unredeemed, and unholy still.[5]

God has acted in human history, in grace, in Jesus Christ. The persistent deafness of the world to God, and to the redeeming message of the gospel is the reason for so much fear. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love (1 John 4:18). Unbelief in the gospel, and the refusal of Love’s given solution weighs heavily upon the global conscience, as also upon the national conscience, and of course, the personal conscience.

P.T. Forsyth never wrote a book on the conscience, but few seem to have understood it better than he did. He said that conscience makes us man, makes us one, and makes us eternal. He appears to be saying that of all creatures man is endowed the conscience, and without conscience he is not truly man. He is also saying that it is one of the most dynamic factors common to every human being, and that transcending class, language, race and creed it gives us that by which we can understand humanity – at least on the moral level. That is why Forsyth also said, ‘That which goes deepest to the conscience goes widest to the world‘. Nothing we do of right or wrong can relate only to this world, but to eternity, i.e. sin and wrongdoing meets its judgement in the eternal sphere, and not just in this world.[6]

THE CROSS: DISCUSSION AND INTERPRETATION

People still discuss the cross of Jesus. They reflect on the meaning of it all.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them but their eyes were kept from recognizing him (Luke 24:15-16)

The Risen Jesus is present amidst the discussion, of life, and the cross, and its meaning, and it is He who interprets the things concerning himself, to those who need to know and to understand. Sharply admonished, new cross-insight evokes great joy (Luke 24:52).

Then he said to them. “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all the prophets have declared?” (Luke 24:25b)

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).

It is so important that we discuss the cross in our present-day context. There are five categories under which Forsyth discusses History and Judgment. Briefly, we note them:

1. Scriptural   2. Evangelical   3. Philosophical   4. Critical   5. Ironical[7]

1. SCRIPTURAL

Forsyth points us to a Psalm often used in churches as a call to worship, to sing a new song to the Lord. Psalm 96 finishes with the theme of joy, as all the trees of the forest sing for joy (Psalm 96:13b) at the Lord’s coming to judge the world with righteousness:

…and so God takes His own text, and preaches, to those that have ears to hear, judgment. His great sermons on crucial occasions are long, and deeply theological. Perhaps now we may grow in the mood to listen, and the skill to read His signs in the times. What is the Christian theology of public judgment? It is not great nations only, but modern civilisation that is at the bar. Does it stand before the judgment-seat of Christ?

In the Bible, in Christianity, the idea of judgment is not that of a remote and unearthly dies iræ[8]a notion which has become a demoralising dream, withdrawing religion from the midst of life. Judgment is the visitation of a Saviour. It comes into affairs. It means less destruction than reconstitution. It has a note of joy in it, the joy of harvest.[9]

Once again, Forsyth reminds us that the judgment in history is one of dilemma, choice and crisis, and not that of civilised progress and development. Christ’s death and resurrection is a movement, a build-up, to a crescendo of judgment, closing one world, opening another. He refers to the parable of the vineyard, and the last judgment being the last of a long train: Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son’ (Matthew 21:37). The final wicked deed of crucifying Jesus was the last judgment. ‘But it always means the dawn of the kingdom more than the doom of the world.[10]

2. EVANGELICAL

Forsyth has said, ‘theology means thinking in centuries’, and this he does himself, when he surveys the Dark Ages, noting the missing element of teleology,[11] and its detrimental effects through the course of history. Theology lost the sense of history.

It is the mark of the Dark Ages and the Churches millennial slumber that theology departed from its historic base and lost the sense of history (my emphasis) in the wilds of speculation. This base and this sense we are only now recovering for faith. The first Christian principle was right, whatever we think of its first form. High history is not possible without the teleology which a final judgment supplies for all other crises. And Christianity alone, by this article of faith, makes a history of the world possible. It restores theology to history, and history to theology.[12]

He also notes that excluding the idea of atoning judgment leads to indifference, apathy and disbelief of judgment, and a light sense of spiritual wickedness.

That indifference is the symptom of a state of things in which the Cross loses its searching and universal, its ethical and public quality, and comes to be admired as heroic sacrifice, or sweetened to the taste of the piety of religious groups.[13]

There is an enormous amount of pessimism among people today. Forsyth is right to note that pessimismis erected into a creed upon the debris of the creeds of hope. So ends a religion of probabilities. Uncertainty denies Christ’s Victory. It fails to see Jesus’ significance, in his death for decisive judgement. Unbelief in what God has done, results in pessimism. A pessimist, being one who always looks on the worst side of life!

Evangelical faith has no timidity, concerning the basic facts, even amidst many doubters.

For faith we must have facts, and facts eternal and sure. We must have a fact, which ensures all the future because it contains it, creates it, and gives us the final settlement of the moral soul in advance.[14]

Facts Eternal and Sure

For Christian faith … that fact is Christ’s Cross, as a greater fact than all history, for which now all history moves. He is the last judgment, yesterday, today, and forever, the goal and justification of all the devious, dreadful ways of earth. The deepest thing, whether in progress or catastrophe, is its contribution to His denouement. Christ in His Cross is the theodicy of history, its crisis, its essential, and final, and glorious justice.

We noted in the previous study the importance, to our understanding, of Christ’s Words from the cross – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22) – the essence of these words really must be grasped. Geoffrey Bingham has written:

If he were not separated, then would sin have been really dealt with? If this alienation of the human spirit from God is the very essence of wrath, then was God’s wrath really poured out on the Cross upon sin, and was it borne by Christ, if he were not forsaken? The answer must surely be, ‘The wrath was poured out upon sin, and for man’s sake he was forsaken’… What we fail to understand is the utter desolation that is indicated by the cry. If to be forsaken is the utterness of suffering (and it is), then he actually has to suffer this. If some special knowledge tells him he is not essentially forsaken, then he does not suffer to the full. Let us understand this: he did suffer to the full. Failure to understand this cry is failure to understand the terrible nature of sin and the high wrath of the eternal God, who must destroy evil by His burning action of holiness.[15]

Jesus must know and bear the dreadful anger of God upon all sin, once, for all. It is only as a person by the Spirit, sees these facts that they can be truly at peace.

He must, as man, be taken from the Holy Presence and go out into the place of the damned. He must suffer it all, or not at all.[16]

Leon Morris concurs regarding this actual fact of forsaken-ness. The meaning of Jesus’ words, are that he was cut off from the Father.[17]

Another scholar, R.W. Dale would never allow that Christ only felt forsaken. He said,

‘I shrink from saying that even in my calmest and brightest hours I have a knowledge of God and the ways of God which is truer than Christ had, even in His agony. I dare not stand before His cross and tell Him that even for a moment He imagines something concerning God which is not a fact and cannot be a fact’.[18]

Forsyth alerts us to the wrecked world, where the mending requires something very deep:

Things are so profoundly out of joint that only something deeper than the wrecked world can mend them, only a God of love and power infinite, making his sovereignty good once for all, though mountains are cast into the sea. The only theodicy is not a system, but a salvation; it is God’s own saving Act and final judgment, incarnate historically and personally. The Cross of Christ, eternal and universal, immutable and invincible, is the moral goal and principle of nations and affairs.

If it seem ridiculous to say that a riot and devilry of wickedness like war is still not out of the providence of Christ’s holy love, it is because we are victims of a prior unfaith. It is because we have come to think it a theological absurdity to say that the Cross of Christ outweighs for God in awful tragedy, historic moment, and eternal effect a whole world ranged in inhuman arms. We do not really believe that it is Christ, ‘crucified to the end of the world’ (as Pascal says), that pays the last cost of war. That God spared not His own Son is a greater shock to the natural conscience than the collapse of civilisation in blood would be.

Again, Forsyth has nailed it. We too, in our day, have come to think it a theological absurdity to say that the Cross of Christ outweighs for God in awful tragedy, historic moment, and eternal effect a whole world ranged in inhuman arms. Theologians, preachers and churches – we have all too often failed to declare the whole counsel of God in this matter. We have been slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.

For civilisation may deserve to collapse, if only because it crucified the Son of God, and crucifies Him afresh. But if God spared not His own Son, He will spare no historic convulsion needful for His kingdom. And if the unspared Son neither complained nor challenged, but praised and hallowed the Father’s name, we may worship and bow the head.[19]

3. PHILOSOPHICAL

The Church, with a last judgment remote, and an individualist salvation by private bargain at hand, has much failed in relating the Cross to history. And in so far it has been untrue to its Bible.

If the Church fails to relate the cross satisfactorily to history, where does it fail?

The bane of popular Christianity is that it has severed the Cross from the moral principle for which the world is built, from the creative leaven in active things, and has made it a second best, a supplementary device for the rescue of a section of mankind who occupy to it a certain relation of greater or less piety. Salvation, the Church, the kingdom become but the proceeds from a good sale of the wreck of creation.[20]

Creation – the key to open our understanding the Cross

Do we know and proclaim the wonder and joy of creation, redeemed in Christ? This is essential wisdom, at the heart of the gospel (Ephesians 3:9). Creation, our home, is the dwelling place of God, in Jesus Christ. The cross is not a supplementary device. It is at the heart of God’s purpose for creation. All too often the Church has held an escapist theology – a dualist approach to creation – whereby physicality is seen as inferior to spirituality. Many consider this creation should be abandoned to the rubbish dump, while a redeemed section of humanity fly away, to some safer, more homely place, for eternity. Where does that thinking really connect with present history? It doesn’t. As such, it is no real gospel, for creation in primary, and not salvation. If creation fails, God fails.[21]

Christianity does believe in a solution already real, however unseen. We now live amid the evolution of the final crisis and last judgment of the sempiternal[22] cross. All the moral judgment moving to effect in the career of souls, societies, and nations is the action of the Cross as the final, crucial, eternal Act of the moral power of the universe.[23]

We do well to recognise God’s judgments taking place now. We may hold a general faith that there is a fundamental distinction between right and wrong. But we are given in Christ something far more decisive than that. A frame of mind of blessed assurance, and confidence arises because God is the decisive Judge. There is finality to this age.

It is well that we should know that, as men or nations, we are daily registering our own judgment in the character our conduct is laying down, that we are creating our own Kharma, that we are writing two copies of our life at once – one of them, through the black carbon of time and death, in the eternal. And it elevates the whole conception of history to view it as at bottom the action, almost automatic, and therefore certain, of the divine judgment – so long as we can rise to think it is moral action with an end, and not incessant moral process.

All that is to the good. But the tendency is to lose, in the moral automatism, the sense of judgment as more than sure nemesis, as the work of a living and saving God who has already said His last and endless word in this kind. We tend to miss in judgment the incessant reaction of His personal and absolute holiness as the last creative power in all being, and the organising principle of its slow evolution through time. We are led to think more of the judgment than of the Judge. It then becomes hard, very often, to believe in judgment, or trace the justice at work at all. And we come out of the welter, perhaps, with little more at best than a general faith that there is a distinction between right and wrong, possibly even a fundamental one, but with no assurance which will win at last, whether the far end of it all will be a kingdom of God or a kingdom of Satan.[24]

The goal of creation, the regeneration, the new creation, the expulsion of all that is evil, the arrival of that which God always had in mind, gives present history deep significance.

It is now the moment to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far-gone, the day is near (Romans 13:11b-12a).

4. CRITICAL

This section was particularly difficult for me to summarise. Forsyth makes reference to a famous phrase of the German philosopher and historian, Frederick Schiller: Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht. It means ‘History is the true criticism and last judgment of the world’. Forsyth concurs that this ‘is a great word’. But requests due caution:

But it may hide in it also a great fallacy. It may easily come to mean what is so false in recent pragmatism-that efficiency is the test of right, that only clear fitness survives, that nothing is to be held true till you see it works, that the only success is success. It does not do justice to the Christian idea.[25]

Many people, and politicians in particular are mere pragmatists: If something works, it must be right. The problem of this sort of thinking is that it leads us to see the world as simply an immediate ‘cause and effect’ environment. Here, the active role of God is almost superfluous. At best he becomes the Trustee of the moral order. People think of the world, then, as detached from God. Everything becomes relative. We speak of values, but there is no measuring stick. There is no longer any standard by which to measure whether things are improving or not. Life grows more complex … more busy, but more meaningless. Forsyth says: It has nothing to crystallise on.[26] Sounds hauntingly familiar. It describes much of our way of life, as it is lived in Australia, 2008, doesn’t it?

The ethical process in mere history has no real closes. The books are never made up. To what does it all move?[27]

Forsyth saw the danger of this approach, outworking in WW1, and well in advance of WW2. Already there were loud political appeals to a tutelary God – a guardian spirit -, but entire silence about Christ, his judgment or His kingdom. The result is tribalism.

What is the end result of such an approach today? Multiculturalism, at its best can be colourful, joyful, varied and mutually enriching. But mere multiculturalism, as a stable way of structuring society and community, may be a very dangerous, or disastrous. It is a world-Christ who is given for all nations of the world – for the blessing of all peoples.

5. IRONICAL

In many cases in life the important thing is not what is said but what is not said. That is what the experienced man is most concerned to interpret. That is what he comes either to distrust or to rely on most.[28]

This final section reminds me of a title ‘Finally comes the Poet’, by Walter Brueggemann. Forsyth’s dense theology becomes more like poetry. And we can grasp it!

When we have to reckon men up, or to revise our interviews with them, we may attach most weight not to the words we heard but to the one remark we expected but it did not come.[29]

Forsyth then builds upon this point with an illustration from creation:

It is so in nature. The stillness of the night often seems more full and more impressive than the bustle of the day. Its calm is a rebuke, or at least a monition, to the day’s passion and the day’s haste; the repose is full of subtle question. So as we rise in the scale and business of life the silence may be more eloquent and even active than the sound; and more is meant by reserve than by response. The criticism by silence can be as severe as any.

And then come a series of great insights he has been building toward – God’s laughter and smiles: (taking nothing from the seriousness of all our studies!)

God’s judgment on things and in things is not absent because it is still, and it is not out of action because it is not obvious nor obtrusive.[30]

If God do not yet intervene on earth He sits in heaven – sits and laughs. And His smile is inscrutable, and elusive, only not cruel: the smile of endless power and patience, very still, and very secure, and deeply, dimly kind. The judgment of God can be as lofty and sleepless as the irony of heaven over earth, or the irony of history upon earth. ‘Thou didst deceive me and I was deceived.’[31]

Heine[32] spoke daringly of the Aristophanes[33] of heaven. But that is not the smile that any Christian can see or credit over us. Yet it need not be either faithless or foolish to speak of the Socratic heavens. God seems so slow, so clouded, so fumbling in His ways; and His questions that do reach us seem so irrelevant, so naïve – but they are so dangerous.

The powers that delay but do not forget are not simple, impotent, or confused as they tarry. If fire do not fall from the heavens they yet rain influence down. There is a world of meaning in their gaze upon men whom they do not yet smite.

It is neither a stony nor a bovine[34] stare.

All the world is being summed up by that bland sky.

Its light is invisibly actinic[35] on earth.

What seems distance and irrelevance, weak and unweeting,[36] may well put us on our guard. The heavens are not so simple as they seem, nor is God so mocked as He consents to appear, and to appear for long. He gives our desire, and it shrivels our soul. Of our pleasant vices He is making instruments to scourge us. The passions, ambitions, and adventures of men go on to achieve their end through a riot of worldliness, wickedness, defiance, and guilt; but they are after all the levers for a mightier purpose than theirs, which thrives on their collapse. The wrath of man works the righteousness of God. Satan’s last chagrin is his contribution to God’s kingdom. The great agents of the divine purpose have often no idea of it. ‘Cyrus, my servant.’ [See Isaiah 45:1, 4]

One thing they do with all their might, but God accomplishes by them quite another. Julius Caesar never intended nor conceived the Roman Church; but it came by him, and he was murdered. His ambition was his death, but his great function was a thing vaster than the Roman Empire.

There is a certain truth (if we will be very careful with it) in the early Christian fantasy that Satan was befooled by the patient naïveté of Christ. That is the irony of history – when the very success of an idea creates the conditions that belie it, smother it, and replace it. Catholicism becomes the Papacy. The care for truth turns to the Inquisition. The religious orders, vowed to poverty, die and rot of wealth. A revival movement becomes a too, too prosperous and egoistic Church. Freedom as soon as it is secured becomes tyranny. Misfortune need not be judgment, nor need defeat; but victory may be. And defeat may be victory. The irony seems most cruel when it overtakes one who is the slave of no ambition but, like Socrates, is filled with the great idea, or like Christ with the Holy Ghost – men whose passion did not need to be overruled for the Kingdom of Heaven, but was purely and wholly engrossed with it. We are faced with the gigantic and ironic paradox of the Cross, which crushes the best to raise both them and the world.

If His words are acts, so is that slow smile. Heaven does not laugh loud but it laughs last – when all the world will laugh in its light. It is a smile more immeasurable than the ocean’s and more deep; it is an irony gentler and more patient than the bending skies, the irony of a long love and the play of its sure mastery; it is the smile of the holy in its silent omnipotence of mercy. The stillness of those heavens that our guns cannot reach is not a circumambient indifference, it is an irony of the Eternal power in sure control of human passion, a sleepless judgment on it, an incessant verdict, very active, mighty, and monitory for those that have ears to hear – yea, very merciful. Greater than the irony in history is the irony over it. Great is the irony of persecution by the Church, of cruelty coming from culture, of corruption from the very success of purity, of a colossal egoism in the wake of much self-denial. But greater and other is the irony of those skies that look down on the whole earth and make its ironies little-look down, so inert yet so ominous, so still yet so eloquent, so vacant yet so charged with the judgment that the Cunctator Maximus is incessantly passing on man – penetrating by its slow insistence, wearing earth down with its monotone of doom. We have that sublime, and ironic, and ceaseless judgment in the irony of Christ before Pilate – all Heaven taking sentence from rude Rome, the chief outcast of the world judging the world with the last judgment of its God … He moves in long orbits, out of sight and sound. But he always arrives.[37]


[1] Doxology – i.e. Praise to God (from Greek words, ‘doxa’ (glory) and ‘logos’ (word) – word of glory!

[2] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 188

[3] http://www.energyandcapital.com/

[4] Martin Luther’s definition of sin – ‘to be turned in upon yourself’.

[5] Forsyth, p. 207.

[6] Geoffrey C. Bingham, The Conscience, Conquering or Conquered?, NCPI, Blackwood, 1980, 2001, p. xi.

[7] Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 188-203.

[8] dies iræthe first words of a medieval Latin hymn describing the Last Judgment (literally `day of wrath’).

[9] Forsyth, p. 188-9.

[10] Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 189.

[11] Teleology – we have previously discussed in Study 3 – Towards the Certain Goal.

[12] Forsyth, p. 190.

[13] Forsyth, p. 190.

[14] Forsyth, p. 193.

[15] Geoffrey C. Bingham, Christ’s Cross Over Man’s Abyss, NCPI, Blackwood, 1987, p. 68.

[16] Bingham, Christ’s Cross Over Man’s Abyss, p. 70.

[17] Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1965, p. 45.

[18] R. W. Dale, The Atonement, London, 1902, p. xli.

[19] I believe it may have been David Brainerd, 1718-1747 (the missionary mentioned last week), who was able to praise and hallow the Father’s name even as his own family members were murdered, as he was dragged in a tortuous manner across a prairie, for his testimony to Jesus; all in the service of bringing the gospel to the North American Indians in Delaware.

[20] Forsyth, p. 198.

[21] See Geoffrey C. Bingham, Creation and the Liberating Glory, NCPI, Blackwood, 2004, p. 73.

[22]sempiternal – having no known beginning and presumably no end; “the dateless rise and fall of the tides”; “time is endless”; “sempiternal truth”; enduring forever;

[23] Forsyth, p. 198.

[24] Forsyth, p. 196.

[25] Forsyth, p. 199-200.

[26] Forsyth, p. 203.

[27] Forsyth, p. 201.

[28] Forsyth, p. 203.

[29] Forsyth, p. 203.

[30] Forsyth, p. 203-4; the other quotes that follow are from pp. 204-207, formatted for ease of reading.

[31] Jeremiah 20:7 – Jeremiah’s complaint against God.

[32] Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), a German poet who lived during the times of the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon; his lyrics have inspired such composers as Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann.

[33] Aristophanes – An Athenian playwright, some consider him the greatest ancient writer of satirical comedy. Surviving plays include: The Clouds (423) and Lysistrata (411).

[34] I think he means rather docile; certainly the stare of our brown-eyed Jersey cows was quite intelligent.

[35] Actinic: a display caused by chemical charges produced by radiant energy – especially in the visible and ultraviolet sector of the spectrum.

[36] Unweeting – unwitting; not knowing; unaware; not intended.

[37] Forsyth, p. 207.

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 9

SAVING JUDGEMENT

Study 9

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

As we pursue the study of P.T. Forsyth’s book, The Justification of God, we look at the matter of salvation – and the apostolic desire for all people, including the kings of the world, to come into the Kingdom of God, and be saved. As Forsyth says: The more we believe in the Kingdom of God the more we must believe in judgment.[1]

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all – this was attested at the right time (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  God saves his people. The Israelites groaned under their slavery in Egypt, and cried out to God (Exodus 2:23). They were rescued – or saved by passing through the red sea. Salvation involves coming out into a large place – a place of freedom and space. Salvation involves the joy of daily life within creation. Salvation involves liberty and the joy of community life; salvation involves the future glorious freedom, which is given from sin and death. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). Salvation extends to the future of creation, set free from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). Salvation is eternal life in Christ Jesus.

SALVATION THROUGH JUDGMENT

Many people think that the cross of Christ is a sort of legal device designed for avoiding judgment. This is not so. Rather, salvation comes, not in bypassing judgment, but takes place by passing through judgment. The judgment of the cross cuts right through us, and we, by faith, pass through it, in Christ. I have been crucified with Christ is our true claim. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

P.T. Forsyth says:

What is judgment but the setting out in true and full light (i.e. in just relation to the whole) of the actual state of things between the soul’s case and the ruling power of the world? Unless Christ be a dream or a dreamer, that power is God’s grace. That is our final judge. To it we stand or fall. The gospel of grace, in the Cross and its preaching, is the real ultimate judgment of the world, the real and final power at work now.[2]

Our salvation cost the Father his own Son. We may think this was but for a moment. That view would be a misreading of the gospel message. That Christ was utterly forsaken – is a fracture, or deep break, within the love-unity of the Triune God himself, and is of immense importance. Paul sees this action as a totally gracious giving to the human race.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

Forsyth presses us in the opposite direction in order that we might grasp something of the judgment process both in the cross, and in the course of human history. God who is prepared to forsake his Son, for the sake of humanity’s future, is also prepared to us the most dreadful of circumstances, to further his good purpose for creation. Forsyth is referring particularly to the tragic world war he was experiencing in 1917.

If God spared not His own Son He can bear to see, and rise to use, the most dreadful things that civilisation can produce. History is a long judgment process; but it is not in the course of history with its debacles that we find the last judgment of God, and fix our faith in it, but at a point of history, in the Cross of Christ. It is there that we find the justification of God at first hand, and His own theodicy.[3]

THE LOOSING AND BINDING ACTION OF LOVE

Hearing the gospel message is not a neutral exercise. It is a crisis, a moment of decision. It has consequences. The disciples understood their actions were not neutral, and learned this from their Lord, when Jesus said: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:19). In John we read: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’. (John 20:23)

Their power to forgive is of course ministerial only, and not magisterial. The disciples are heralds of the gospel, servants and agents of Christ. But only God, in Christ, as King has the right to forgive, and pardon. God acts in love, in sending Christ, to reveal this love:

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10).

The great Christian message to the world is not simply love. That is too general, not to say vague. Christianity does not produce only love to God, but also hate.[4]

Our message is never neutral. Forsyth said of gracious loving, direct preaching:

It not only produces faith but it also deepens unfaith, and hardens impenitence. If it loose it also binds; and it can do the one only if it do the other – action and reaction being equal. If it draw some near to God, it repels others into distance and estrangement. There is such a thing as the repulsive power of a great affection.[5]

Perfect grace was and is final judgment. It is condemnation to ignore salvation. Full and final judgment is not something super-added to the Gospel. It is no corollary, no by-product. It is intrinsic to it. It is an element of Fatherhood, and not a device.[6]

John’s Gospel warns people not to ignore this salvation. Following on from the most used evangelical appeal from Scripture, is the warning sound as well. We should weigh it carefully in our minds and hearts.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; (John 3:16-18a)

but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ (John 3:18b-21)

Forsyth writes:

The same Church that evangelises the world in the very act judges it. It not only divides each soul, but all society, electing and rejecting.[7]

The Cross did not, indeed, come directly and expressly to judge (John viii. 15-16, xii. 47-48). It did so only in the course of exerting … God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. But judge it certainly did. It brought to a head for the world the sin of an elect nation – a nation whose sense of privilege and merit repudiated moral for national interests, scouted Christ’s word of mercy and His call to repent, and found no public meaning in His Word of love and humility. It thus became, more than Rome, incarnate Antichrist. It sinned against pure light.[8]

The Cross, which that nation inflicted filled up the measure of its guilt and brought it death. And this was not against Christ’s will but with it. He knew He was Israel’s doom. The Holy One knew that the soul of man or nation that chose to sin must go on to die, and that every word of greater love might become a word of more wrath. But He never judged them in the sense of avenging, far less of revenging. Their judgment was the reaction on them, from God’s holiness… [9]

THE PERSON OF CHRIST IS NOT KNOWN APART FROM HIS WORK

Sin is deceitful, as are the works of the evil One, which Christ came to destroy. Indeed, the powers of Satan and his minions are poorly considered, by our humanistic culture. As Geoffrey Bingham has pointed out: There is quite a bit of shoulder-shrugging in regard to this subject.[10] Forsyth describes deficient teaching in his day as:

‘… defective insight into the final nature and victory of the Cross over the diabolism and perdition in the world’.

It reflects a certain moral amateurism due to the abeyance of a theology of the Cross. Such religion, certainly, loves the person of Christ. It is in love with His love, and with His Cross as the summit of that love in self-sacrifice. But it has no room nor need for judgment there. It does not feel there God’s judgment on sin, and the crisis of the moral world and of a holy eternity. It needs moralising from a deeper experience of life – an experience older, more secular, more tragic. For want of a theology of conscience such souls do not know the world nor gauge its redemption. Their belief in Christ is impaired for want of a belief in the Satan that Christ felt it His supreme conflict to counter-work and destroy.[11]

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8b). And that he did by bearing our sins, dealing with our guilt, pronouncing God’s word of forgiveness and peace, thus saving humanity from Satan’s deadly accusations.

The grace of God is the greatest judgment ever passed on the world. That is the nature of the Cross – God’s grace (and not God’s law), in moral, saving judgment on man. When we have entered the kingdom through the great judgment in the Cross, we do not escape all judgment; we escape into a new kind of judgment, from that of law to that of grace. We escape condemnation, for we are new creatures, but chastisement we do not escape. Our work may be burned, to our grief, that we may be saved (I Cor. xi. 32). We are judged or chastened with the Church to escape condemnation with the world. And at the last must there not be some great crisis of self-judgment, when we all see Him as He is, and see ourselves as His grace sees us?[12]

We are afraid that if we find that moral ground and destiny of the world in the historic Christ and His Cross, and if we say ‘we see not yet all things put under righteousness, but we see Jesus,’ and rest, we shall be called Biblicists instead of historians, more theological than ethical. Well, we must take the risk. The judgment of the world accordingly is not the history of the world, but its Saviour.[13]


[1] P.T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 170.

[2] P.T. Forsyth, p. 184-185.

[3] P.T. Forsyth, p. 170.

[4] P.T. Forsyth, p. 170.

[5] P.T. Forsyth, p. 170.

[6] P.T. Forsyth, p. 171.

[7] P.T. Forsyth, p. 171.

[8] P.T. Forsyth, p. 171.

[9] P.T. Forsyth, p. 172.

[10] G.C. Bingham, The Clash of the Kingdoms, NCPI, 1989, p. 10.

[11] P.T. Forsyth, p. 175.

[12] P.T. Forsyth, p. 181.

[13] P.T. Forsyth, p. 186.

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 8

THE CROSS CRUCIAL FOR DESTINY

Study 8

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

INTRODUCTION

There is a strange statement in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul speaks of God the Father’s active involvement in the event of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, saying:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).[1]

Given that human sin is not ‘but a remora[2], or drag, on Humanity’[3], but rather, ‘its death and hell’ – and given that, ‘the wrongest thing with the world is its sin’,[4] then the need to deal with sin finally and fully is the matter upon which the destiny of humanity, and the holy character of God, must centre. What it means for Jesus Christ, God’s Son, to be made to be sin lies at the heart of the gospel.

THE CRUCIALITY OF THE CROSS

In following P.T. Forsyth’s book, The Justification of God (1917), we now come in our series, to Chapter IX.  It is entitled ‘The Eternal Cruciality of the Cross for Destiny’, and it may remind you (if you know of Forsyth’s other books), of his work first published in 1909, entitled The Cruciality of the Cross. While we have much to read, digest, and study already, I would nevertheless like to include in this study some quotations (taken slowly), from the final few pages of The Cruciality of the Cross.

In being “made sin,” treated as sin (though not as a sinner), Christ experienced sin as God does, while he experienced its effects as man does. He felt sin with God, and sin’s judgment with men. He realised, as God, how real sin was, how radical, how malignant, how deadly to the Holy One’s very being.[5]

When Christ died at sin’s hands it meant that sin was death to the holiness of God, and both could not live in the same world. When He rose it meant that what was to live and rule in the world was the holy God.[6]

Dying as man, Christ placed His whole self beside man under the judgment of God. He was beside man in court but on God’s side in the issue, confessing God’s holiness in the judgment, and justifying His treatment of sin. Justifying God![7]

Forsyth then gives a poignant illustration, with a comment, which is pure theodicy:

A missionary to the North American Indians records that having seen his wife and children killed before his eyes, and being himself harried in bonds across the prairie amid his tormentors, he “justified God in this thing.” I do not know a sublimer order of experience than from the heart to bless and praise a good and holy God in despairs like these. It is to this order of experience that the work, the blood, of Christ belongs. And there is no justification of men except by this justification, this self-justification, of God.[8]

Never is man so just with God as when his broken, holy heart calls just the judgment of God which he feels but has not himself earned; and never could man be just with God but through God’s justification of Himself in the blood of Christ.[9]

In speaking here of atonement, Forsyth is keen to retain the word ‘satisfaction’:

We cannot in any theology which is duly ethicised dispense with the word satisfaction. It was of course not a quantitative replacement of anything God had lost, nor was it the glutting of a God’s anger by an equivalent suffering on who cares whom. It was no satisfaction of a jus talionis.[10]

But it was the adequate confession, in act and suffering, “Thou art holy as Thou judgest.” That man should confess this vicariously and victoriously in Christ crucified and risen is the re-establishment of God’s holiness in the world. We can only understand any justification of man as it is grounded in this justification-this self-justification-of God. The sinner could only be saved by something that thus damned the sin.[11]

In a far more nuanced manner, than is employed by many evangelicals today, Forsyth then speaks of what is not the Father’s action in the cross (punishing Jesus), as well as what is his action in the cross, (namely imparting unto Christ, the penalty upon sin).

The Saviour was not punished, but He took the penalty of sin, the chastisement of our peace. It was in no sense as if He felt chastised or condemned (as even Calvin said), but because He willingly bowed, with a moral understanding possible only to the sinless, under the divine ordinance of a suffering death and judgment which was holily ordained to wait on the sin of His kin.

The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin. The metaphor denotes the radicality, totality, and finality of the whole action in the realism of the moral world which even high sacrifice, not resisting unto blood, only slurs or shelves-when it does not toy with it.

Forsyth notes that Jesus early teaching wholly relates to his suffering deeds in the cross:

It is notable that Christ speaks of His blood only at His life’s end, while during life He spoke only of forgiving grace without any such expiation (except in the ransom passage). Why was this so?

Two reasons are given:

1. Was it not, first, because His grand total witness, which death but pointed, was to the grace of God’s holy love; and the exposure of sin could only come by the light of that revelation?

2. And was it not, second, because His revelation and offer of holy grace without sacrifice and judgment failed of its effect; because even the great, uplifted, and joyful invitation, “Come unto Me,” failed till it was enacted from the mighty gloom of the cross; because only the uplifting of the cross, and not the uplifting of His voice, draws all men unto Him;

The cross draws people. It does so as the holy love of God breaks through to human beings by revelation. God’s very wonderful loving kindness is brought home livingly by the Spirit of God – the mystery of the cross is opened, and poured into hearts and minds.

THE CROSS AND GRACE

Forsyth saw the biblical relationship between the cross and grace, in a way, that many others failed, and fail still to see and proclaim (that is why many abandon atonement theology). Robert McAfee Brown followed Forsyth’s corrective theology well:

God is willing to go to the length of suffering and dying to enter into fellowship with man. There is a misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of atonement that goes something like this: God is an angry God, angry at men because men have sinned, and he decides to condemn mankind; but Christ intercedes for man, and God’s vengeance is sated by punishing Christ instead. Although this is a travesty of the Christian position it has unfortunately been too often suggested by interpreters of the atonement as well as by their critics. But Forsyth, who said, “The doctrine of grace and the doctrine of the atonement are identical,” the true interpretation is that the atonement flows from grace, it does not “procure” grace. This extremely important insight means that our reading of the atonement is more like this: Because God loves men, he suffers on their behalf, bears himself the weight of their wrongdoing, and this restores fellowship, or reconciles. Grace is not something Christ earned for us from God; grace is rather something God gave us in Christ. “Do not say: ‘God is love. Why atone?’ Say: ‘God has atoned. What love!’[12]

SALVATION IS THE SOLUTION

We are not taught or argued by proofs, or theology into the kingdom of God. Rather we are transferred, by way of rescue. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14) The victory of the resurrected Christ is our salvation. The work of the crucified Christ is our forgiveness of sins, and it means the redemption of the world. We are not seeking our own solution. We are given one.

Not only can God solve the world, He has solved it, in His own practical way of solution, by saving it-by an act done, and not a proof led, nor a scheme shown. His wisdom none can trace, and His ways are past finding out; but His work finds us; and His grace, His victory, and His goal become sure.[13]

The message of the apostles was always of what God had done, in the death and resurrection of Christ (see Romans 5-8). And yet, Forsyth identifies good reasons why God’s ways in revelation, are unsearchable; Drawing upon apostolic insight – O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33) – Forsyth comments:

If we saw all His scheme our faith would be compelled, and not free. It might do more to overwhelm us than to raise or fortify. It would be sight-something too satisfactory to a merely distributive justice; it would not be faith creative and constitutive for the holy soul. The faith we keep means more for our soul than the views we win.[14]

Faith in receiving the truth of God in the cross is an absolutely essential factor. Faith is not some well-reasoned conclusion. Faith is at once a gift from God, and an action of personal trust, of belief, of receptivity.

Job’s friends had sounder views on some points than he, but they did not receive the reward that his desperate faith had. In the Cross of Christ we learn the faith that things not willed by God are yet worked up by God. In a divine irony, man’s greatest crime turns God’s greatest boon. O felix culpa![15] The riddle is insoluble but the fact is sure. The new man, remade in Christ and not simply impressed by Christ, is sure amid a world of strident problems. We know what God has done for the world in redeeming it; we have tasted that in our soul; but we do not know why He took the way with it that He did, why it must mean the Cross. He speaks not an all-solving but an all-liberating word.[16]

THE FATHER AND SON CARRY AND SUFFER THE MISERY OF THE AGES

Jesus said: the Father and I are one (John 10:3). He also said, the Father is in me and I am in the Father (John 14:10). When we see the Cruciality of the Cross, we see the action of the Father giving up his Son in love, and the Son honoring the Father. God, the Father, was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. We are often made aware of the sufferings of Christ. However, Forsyth draws our attention to the depth of the Father’s suffering too, saying: ‘And the Father suffered in His Son even more than the Son did’.[17]

There is an Eye, a Mind, a Heart, before Whom the whole bloody and tortured stream of evolutionary growth has flowed. We are horrified, beyond word or conception, by the agony and devilry of war, but, after all, it only discharges upon us, as it were from a nozzle, a far vaster accumulation of such things, permeating the total career of history since ever a sensitive organism and a heartless egoism appeared.[18]

The war is an occasion, to turn anew to the sufferings of God throughout human history:

This misery of the ages, I have said, vanishes from human thought or feeling, till some experience like war carries some idea of it home. But there is a consciousness to which it is all and always present. And in the full view of it He has spoken. As it might be thus: ‘Do you stumble at the cost? It has cost Me more than you-Me who see and feel it all more than you who feel it but as atoms might. “Groanings all and moanings, none of it I lose.” Yea, it has cost Me more than if the price paid were all Mankind. For it cost Me My only and beloved Son to justify My name of righteousness, and to realise the destiny of My creature in holy love.[19]

Forsyth spotlights the love of the Father, for the Son, and calls us to consider this. (We are often very self-centred when we ask questions concerning theodicy). He continues, along the lines that the Father, might say, concerning his Son, Jesus:

And all mankind is not so great and dear as He. Nor is its suffering the enormity in a moral world that His Cross is. I am no spectator of the course of things, and no speculator on the result. I spared not My own Son. We carried the load that crushed you. It bowed Him into the ground. [20]

This suffering however, achieved the Father and the Son’s shared purpose for the world:

On the third day He rose with a new creation in His hand, and a regenerate world, and all things working together for good to love and the holy purpose in love. And what He did I did. How I did it? How I do it? This you know not how, and could not, but you shall know hereafter. There are things the Father must keep in His own hand. Be still and know that I am God, whose mercy is as His majesty, and His omnipotence is chiefly in forgiving, and redeeming, and settling all souls in worship in the temple of a new heaven and earth full of holiness.[21]

THE SUPREME THEODICY IS ATONEMENT

As we have been saying in other studies ‘that day’ – the coming close of history as we know it, the telos – is an essential part of God’s plan, through the cross and Christ’s resurrection; this is a continuation of what Forsyth, understands the Father is saying to us.

In that day the anguish will be forgotten for joy that a New Humanity is born into the world.[22]

However, the matter is never just hoping for heaven. It is the holy name of God fully honoured, through atonement. It means leaving no room or place for sin, eternally.

But all this is groundless if in the Cross of Christ we have but the love of God shown in sacrifice and not its holiness secured in judgment; if the Cross be but to reconcile man and not atone to God, to impress many and not first to hallow the holy name.[23]

In hallowing the Father’s holy name, Christ is doing more than being obedient unto death he is being obedient unto judgment, the final judgment of holiness. Paul says, ‘For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.’ (Romans 5:19) Others who have studied Forsyth have also pointed out that he saw Christ’s obedience as of prime importance:

The important thing is not the “wounds of Jesus”, but the fact that in going to the cross he offered a perfect obedience to the holy will of God. This has never been sufficiently emphasized.[24]

As this series of studies is looking at this whole matter of theodicy, it is appropriate that we close this study, with Forsyth’s closing words for the chapter:

Christ was the new Humanity doing the one needful and right thing before God. God’s justification of man, therefore, was by His justification of Himself in man. The last theodicy is a gift of God and not man’s discovery nor an achievement. It is not a rational triumph but the victory of faith. Christ is the theodicy of God and the justifier both of God and the ungodly. The supreme theodicy is atonement.[25]


[1] Luke also draws attention to the Father’s involvement in the cross, saying that Jesus was handed over to the Israelites, ‘according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God ‘ (Acts 2:23); In Acts 8:32-33 Luke shows how Isaiah 53 is a prophecy including the Father’s involvement in the cross – the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6); similarly Matthew 26:31 takes the prophecy of Zechariah 13:7, I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered, indicating the Father’s sovereign activity.

[2] Remora – a suckerfish – which attaches itself to sharks, whales, sea turtles or the hulls of ships.

[3] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 146.

[4] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 167.

[5] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, NCPI, (1909), 1984, p. 212.

[6] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 213.

[7] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 213.

[8] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, pp. 213-214.

[9] P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214.

[10] Jus talionis: an eye for an eye; quoted from P.T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214.

[11] P.T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross, p. 214.

[12] Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet For Today, Westminster Press, 1952, pp. 82-83.

[13] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154.

[14] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154.

[15] Felix culpa – Blessed fault or fortunate fall’, or “O happy fault”.

[16] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 154.

[17] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 169.

[18] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[19] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[20] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[21] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 164.

[22] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 165.

[23] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 165.

[24] Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet For Today, p. 83.

[25] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 169.

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 7

THE COMING EVENT IN HISTORY

Study 7

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

ONE FAR-OFF DIVINE EVENT

Jesus said: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware; keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13:31-32).

The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, concluded his poem, In Memoriam with these words:

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

Just as there was a day when the Messiah, and Saviour of the world, Jesus, was born into this world in a town called Bethlehem, so too there will be a day when Christ’s coming-appearing will be an actual event in our very real, daily human history. Tennyson described that occasion as “one far-off divine event, to which the whole creation moves”. The seeming delay in Jesus Christ’s coming-appearing – coupled with this expectation but non-arrival in every age since that of the early Christians – has driven some people to mistrust all such prophecy, and to doubt or deny the Christian story, and gospel.

This coming anew of the ascended, reigning Christ into human history, to put things right, and close off this age with finality, is an essential part of a biblical theodicy. It is one component, which is always lacking in a philosophical theodicy, where an understanding of the world is sought apart from the action of God in Christ. The difficult, or seemingly unanswerable questions of theodicy have often produced great doubt, and a kind of faithlessness in many people.

Only this week I noticed that a well-known University Professor in New Testament studies, by the name of Bart Ehrman has concluded that the questions of theodicy, and the unsatisfactory answers he has found, have forced him to take up the stance of an agnostic, rather than hold to his former Christian faith. He has now authored a book telling why.[1] One of the reasons given is his unbelief in much of the Christian creed – such as the resurrected, ascended, currently reigning Christ, and his coming appearing.

We should note that P.T. Forsyth draws our attention to the importance of faith, which looks forward to a teleology – God’s planned goal – arriving in history.

The faith of a teleology in history protects us from the vagrancy of soul, which dogs the notion that things are but staggering on, or flitting upon chance winds over a trackless waste. It saves us from the timidity, which so easily besets us before the incalculable.[2]

Praying and not losing heart are important qualities for a human being to have, and to wrestle to maintain, and sustain. Jesus asked a good question about this persistent, enduring approach, especially when living amidst human injustice and suffering: ‘When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:8).

LIVING IN THE MYSTERY

Jesus said… ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables’. (Mark 4:11).

He went on to say: ‘Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away (Luke 8:18).

Geoffrey Bingham has helped us to see that a mystery is not a problem to be solved, but a revealed reality in which one lives:

The Scriptures do not seem to us to be mysterious, since we can read and noetically understand every idea put forward, but in what we think we understand, there is, nevertheless, mystery. Christ said that in certain cases it has to be given to understand certain mysteries. That is, such mysteries cannot be understood by intellectual endeavour. Somewhere-and somehow-the heart and the will are involved in true comprehension. This is a baffling thought; namely, that such mysteries are not puzzles to be solved. God is Himself the great mystery, and He retains the right to open up Himself and all concomitant mysteries, or to close them off. This is a fearful thought-that mysteries may be shut off from us, and we from them![3]

Humility is especially necessary in the matter of theodicy, and in understanding the nature and origins and activity of evil. In our previous study we commenced by including these two passages from Scripture, concerning the matter of evil:

For the mystery of lawlessness (or mystery of iniquity) is already at work (2 Thessalonians 2:7).

And he (Jesus) said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly (Mark 7:22).

Paul’s phrase in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 teaches and cautions us that sin, lawlessness or iniquity is a mystery. Aware of this one can consider carefully such questions as:

  1. The origin, cause or reason for evil, as well as, perhaps, a prior question about its essence or nature. What is evil? St. Augustine (354-430) denounced as absurd all efforts to reflect upon the origin of evil as long as one does not know what it is.
  1. How long O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? (Habakkuk 1:2)
  1. What is Victory? And, when does it arrive, this Victory over evil? For a humanity that is overwhelmed by suffering (evil endured) and guilt (evil committed), that is the question that matters.[4]

Whilst we are reading and listening to Forsyth seeking understanding – especially of his exposition of the significance of the cross of Christ – we need to bear in mind that we are not merely searching for intellectual insights, but rather, gospel insight – which comes by hearing with faith as Christ speaks!

EVIL TOUCHING OUR NERVE

Forsyth recognizes that there is a greater problem than merely staggering on to nowhere:

But our worst trouble is not due to a mere tracklessness in the course of history. That is too negative to try us keenly. We are exposed to positive assault. The iron enters our soul. The worst question rises, and the chief protest, when the disorder in the world touches our nerve in the shape of positive pain, evil, or guilt; when our personal life is deranged by that alien invasion, or is crushed, instead of stayed, by our connection with the course of things; when conscience rises in protest at the fate of the good, or the falsity of ourselves. Questions then come home about the connection of evil and suffering, sin and sorrow, grief and goodness. Then it is that the desire for a teleology deepens into a passion for a theodicy. Has the teleology a moral end?[5]

Other writers reflecting upon the more horrendous crimes of World War 2, seem to keep looking at the issue of guilt, and the need for it to be attributed, acknowledged and dealt with. But how is guilt to be dealt with, if you have done such things? Is there any hope for a person who has committed gross evil? What about our own less than righteous lives? It is valuable, even if very painful to recount what has happened and keeps happening in human history. In searching for a theology for Auschwitz, Simon writes:

We are dealing with the deaths of millions, mostly non-combatant Jews, who had been rounded up and sent to various concentration-camps designed entirely for their extermination. Auschwitz was the largest but by no means the only place of infamy. At Treblinka, Maideneck, Ravensbruck, Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen, Chelmo, Sohibor, Mauthausen and many lesser known places the same dimensions of sin and suffering prevailed. Auschwitz stands here for the whole guilt which has stained the earth, not only in Europe but also in Asia.

This guilt must in the first place be ascribed to Hitler, the German Chancellor from 1933 until his death by suicide, probably on April 30th, 1945, in Berlin. He appointed the men who carried out the task of extermination with ruthless efficiency.[6]

Our problem is evil as it affects our own lives, so terribly. Over Nyholm produced a film documentary entitled ‘The Anatomy of Evil’, in which he interviewed mostly the perpetrators of mass murder in World War 2 and the Balkans War. In setting out on his task, he said, “I have decided to confront heartlessness, heartlessness itself, face to face.”[7] The interviewer’s final conclusion is honest, as he asks about what he might have done in the same circumstances: “I cannot answer if I would do it; if I say I know myself it is not correct; I can’t predict if I can handle it; I no longer have certainty … from certainty to maybe – that is a profound loss. That is my condition!”

WHEN GOD TRUSTED MAN WITH FREEDOM

When a film documentary maker, cautiously, fearfully, and sadly concludes that virtually all human beings are capable of terrible evil, and many have exercised it in such an atrocious manner, then it seems clear enough that we have been given such freedom as to include even a terrifying capacity for genocide. What then are we to say of our Creator?

There was never such a fatal experiment as when God trusted man with freedom. But our Christian faith is that He knew well what He was about. He did not do that as a mere adventure, not without knowing that he had the power to remedy any abuse of it that might occur, and to do this by a new creation more mighty, marvellous, and mysterious than the first. He had means to emancipate even freedom, to convert moral freedom, even in its ruin, into spiritual. If the first creation drew on His might, the second taxed His all-might. It revealed His power as moral majesty, as holy omnipotence, most chiefly shown in the mercy that redeems and reconciles.[8]

In the light of the Cross’s power, Forsyth goes on the revel in God’s grand plan:

To redeem creation is a more creative act than it was to create it … The supreme power in the world is not simply the power of God but of a holy God, upon whose rule all things wait, and may wait long. It is no slack knot that the Saviour has to undo. All the energy of a perverse world in its created freedom pulled on the tangle to tighten it. And its undoing has given the supreme form to all God’s dealing with the world. But at the same time the snarl is not beyond being untied. Man is born to be redeemed. The final key to the first creation is the second; and the first was done with the second in view … The first creation was the prophecy of the second; the second was the first tragically ‘arrived’. There was moral resource in the Creator equal to anything that might happen to the creature or by him.[9]

The Cross is at once creation’s fatal jar and final recovery. And there is no theodicy for the world except for a theology of the Cross … No reason of man can justify God in a world like this. He must justify Himself, and He did so in the Cross of His Son.[10]

As Forsyth reflects upon the 1914-1917 war to end all wars, he urges us to see the greatness of the gospel of redemption, and the role the church has to know her Lord, and proclaim his Act of Redemption, accomplished, (and recounted), in the power of the weakness of the cross:

We are now in a crisis that no individual can measure, nor his piety deal with and it is beyond any philosophy or idealism of a time. In needs that faith of an agelong holy Church to grasp it. Would that the Church’s faith could always handle it in the true power of that crisis greater still which made the Church – in the power of the Church’s Cross and Gospel. An awful crisis of wickedness like war can only be met on the Church’s height and range of faith; and it forces us up to levels and aspects of our belief which our common hours or moral slackness too easily feel extreme. Nothing but the great theologies of redemption are adequate to the great tragedies of the world … Christ finished the world-work given Him to do. He brought the world home.[11]

Isaiah once said of the suffering servant to come – Jesus – that ‘He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied’. (Isaiah 53:11 RSV). Forsyth takes up the same words and applies them to the whole creation, and its travail:

In Him the whole creation sees the travail of its soul and is satisfied. He who can take away the sin of the world has in His reversion the reason, completion, peace, joy, and glory of all things. The Destroyer of guilt pacifies all grief, the Reconciler of our enmity ends all question. To see the devastator a truly penitent thief would compensate any Christian victim. The Justifier of men is the one and only theodicy of God.[12]

Further reflection upon the sadness and horror of the war, brings Forsyth to describe the situation as elements of hell breaking through into the daily life of humanity, as judgment on the world, but also upon the Church’s failure to serve the world well:

After all, the present cataclysm is an acute condensation of what has been going on in nature, human and other, for millenniums. If faith could survive that, need it succumb to this? If the existence of hell is compatible with faith in God, and is even of His ordinance, must we lose faith when it comes through the earth’s crust in a volcano? … The dirty chimney needed to be fired … The present situation is a monument to the failure of the Church![13]

We are driven to a very personal involvement in the cross, where we can not consider it from afar, nor just talk about it – rather, by the Spirit, we are taken into its action, in the embrace of our Saviour, as he bears our sin, we say – I have been crucified with Christ:

The Cross is not a theological theme, not a forensic device, but the crisis of the moral universe on a scale far greater than earthly war. It is the theodicy of the whole God dealing with the whole soul of the whole world in holy love, righteous judgment, and redeeming grace.[14]

HOW WEIGHTY IS THE GLORY THAT IS TO COME?

Concerning the coming glory, Alister McGrath chimes in with a helpful word:

Some say that nothing could ever be adequate recompense for suffering in this world. But how do they know? Have they spoken to anyone who has suffered and subsequently been raised to glory? Have they been through this experience themselves? One of the greatest tragedies of much writing about human suffering this century has been its crude use of rhetoric. ‘Nothing can ever compensate for suffering!’ rolls off the tongue with the greatest of ease. It has a certain oratorical force. It discourages argument. It suggests that what has been said represents the distillation of human wisdom in the subject, and is so evidently correct that it does not require justification. It implies that anyone who disagrees is a fool. But how do they know nothing can compensate for suffering? Paul believed passionately that the sufferings of the present life would be outweighed by the glory that is to come (Romans 8:18). How do they know that he is wrong, and that they are right? Have they tasted the glory of the life to come, so that they can make the comparison? Have they talked to others who have been through the bitter experience of suffering and death, and have been caught up in the risen and glorious life of Christ, and asked them how they now feel about their past suffering? No. Of course they haven’t. The simple truth is that this confident assertion of the critics of Christianity is just so much whistling in the wind. Their comments are made from our side of the veil which separates history from eternity.’[15]


[1] Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – ‘Why we Suffer’, HarperOne, 2008.

[2] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 120.

[3] Geoffrey C. Bingham, The Glory of the Mystery and the Mystery of the Glory, NCPI, Blackwood, 1998, p. xii.

[4] Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, Apollos, IVP, England, 1994, p. 12-13.

[5] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 120.

[6] Ulrich Simon, A Theology of Auschwitz, SPCK, London, 1967, p. 11.

[7] The following are comments made by men who once killed their civilian victims, so mercilessly:

Ø Many people will ask, is there no light in this murderous dark? The light in the darkness is the shame.

Ø Generally speaking I am not a good man at all. I am not a good Christian. I succumbed to instincts to do evil to others.

Ø I envy people who have normal lives BBQ and go to the beach. I envy tramps. I am no longer like them. Now I don’t belong anywhere, any particular place. I belong here (prison). I’ve lost what is most important – morality.

[8] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, pp. 123-124.

[9] Forsyth, pp. 123-124.

[10] Forsyth, p. 122.

[11] Forsyth p. 126.

[12] Forsyth p. 127.

[13] Forsyth p. 129.

[14] Forsyth p. 133.

[15] Alister McGrath, Suffering, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1992, pp. 96-7.

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 6

FAILURE OF THE CHURCH AS

INTERNATIONAL

Study 6

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

CHURCH FAILURE

(readings: Mark 7:14-23; 2 Thess. 2:7)

It is, unfortunately, simple enough to recall our own failures. Small wholly geriatric congregations and the selling off of stacks of local church buildings – shout or whisper to us of congregational failure. In the New Testament local churches (Rev. 2-3), where failure was rife, Jesus gave severe warnings concerning their future. Many of the distinctive public failures of denominational or national churches have been well documented and evaluated; however, as far as I can see, it is not customary for church leaders to speak of the Failure of the Church International. However, P.T. Forsyth drew attention to this fact. The historical context of international relations was of course unique, and unrepeatable. During World War One he noted:

That the greatest and cruellest war in the world should take place between the two nations for which evangelical Christianity has done the most, and to which its history owes most…[1]

A general reading of history will show that prior to WWI the British Empire and Germany had both been greatly influenced for good, by the gospel.[2] But, how did people of the day grasp and interpret what was happening across Europe? Forsyth observed:

It is a staggering blow to a faith that grew up in a long peace, a high culture, a shallow notion of history, society, or morality, and a view of religion as but a divine blessing upon life instead of a fundamental judgment and regeneration of it. It is fatal to the piety of pony carriage, shaven lawn, or aesthetic tea.[3]

In the light of this, Forsyth raised the question as to whether the church had anything substantial to give to the wider world as it contemplated the significance of this war. What could it offer to the many perplexed people looked for understanding?

Can the Church give the ravaged and bewildered world a theodicy equal in power to the challenge? Or is its own faith but staggering on to its goal, with many falling out to die by world, which He has allowed to get unto such a state? Has He gone deeper than its the way? Is its God justified in expecting the trust and the control of a tragedy? Is the Cross He bore really a greater tragedy and monstrosity than war?[4]

Statistics for World War 1 reveal that there were some 37.5 million casualties, consisting of 8.5 million people killed, 21.2 million wounded, and some 7.75 million taken as prisoners or missing in action.[5] While Forsyth would not have had these grim statistics to hand when he wrote, he was nevertheless a fellow sufferer, together with all members of his own nation during these days. He writes as a preacher of the cross of Christ:

The war is a greater misery and curse than we know, greater than we have imagination to realise – even if we had more facts for imagination to work on. Are we quite sure that it is a greater cross to God than to us, that it is but a part of the tragic and bloody course of history whose sword pierced through His own heart also, and that His Redemption still is in command of all, and His Kingdom sure? His insight misses nothing of all the facts and His holiness none of the horror.

Forsyth earnestly wants people to consider, and then rediscover the power of the cross for the healing of the nations of the world. Of the horror and global grief brought about by the war, he asks, regarding the power of Christ:

does it unhinge Him? Or is the Word of His Cross a vaster salvation than we dream, who are blinded by fears and tears, and whose conscience is not equal to conceiving either the enormity or the salvation?

GRATUITOUS OPTIMISM

To be realistic as a person secure in Jesus Christ is to be neither unduly pessimistic, nor superficially optimistic. It has been said that someone who is unduly optimistic has a misty optic. Forsyth addressed the light and easy optimism of his day, which seemed to stubbornly persist – even during the war – within the church:

One reads appeals made sans gêne[6] by some whose measure of the situation is not equal to their good intention, and who even give the impression of meeting the Atlantic with a mop. We come across machine-made appeals to the Church to be getting ready to handle the situation when the war is over. As if a Church which could not prevent its coming about would have much effect on the awful situation when it is done! If the Churches so little gauged the civilization, which they had allowed to grow up, and which carried the war in its womb, are they more likely to grasp the case when the moral confusion is worse. If they were so impotent before, how are they going to be more powerful now? What new source of strength have they tapped?[7]

Clearly Forsyth believed the Church, globally had some more work to do in order to grasp the true authority and power which lies at the heart of their message and mission:

The Church reared the nations but it is not able to control them for the Kingdom of God. Why? What is missing in its message for adult peoples?[8]

He believed that the matter of real international power lay in integrating the peoples with moral and not merely political force.[9] The source of this moral force is ever the cross of Christ, where sinful humanity is crucified with Christ, and raised to a new dignity and vision for the world in him. Even national parochialism gives way to the larger vision of the purity of, and service to, the human race, and the present will and desire to speak to one’s own nation of such things, believing that a fresh hearing of the gospel is possible. Forsyth said somewhere in his writings, ‘that which goes deepest to the conscience goes widest to the world’. So he was keen to speak with global vision, about the matter of salvation, holy love, and its – at certain times in history – amazing effects.

A CALL TO REDISCOVER THE RADICAL METHOD

If the Church left such a war possible, what encourages us to think that it will discover the radical method by which ‘a recurrence of these experiences may be rendered impossible’? Democratic control! Who or what is controlling or instructing the democracy? The ideologues? A parliament of blue birds! If ‘it has been shown how inadequate the influence of the Churches has been to restrain the forces of international strife,’ it is not because the Churches have been inactive. They have been active even to bustle, not to say fuss. Is there something wrong or inept in the rear of their activity, in the matter of it, in their mental purview, spiritual message, and moral power? And is it more than fumbling with the subject to indulge in platform platitudes about ‘wielding a universal influence over the actions not only of individuals but of the whole community of nations’. This kind of speech does something to depreciate the value of language, and to lighten the moral coinage.

The Gospel is not primarily and offhand a message of peace among men, but among peace of men of goodwill. If the amateur advisers of the Church will realise that its first work, which carries all else with it, it not to lubricate friction but to create among men that goodwill, to revise and brace the belief which has failed to do it, to think less of uniting the Church and more of piercing to a deep Gospel that will; if they will distrust the bustling forms of activity, the harder beating of the old drums, the provision of ever more buns and beverages.[10]

Today there is much talk in churches of the importance of food and table fellowship. But it is still crucial that we open, and are opened time and again to the content of the gospel – Christ himself, and him crucified, bearing our evil away. A person I knew well, often said of potluck suppers, with little content of the Word: ‘The church is stuffing itself again’. We so quickly depart, and desert the one who called us in the grace of Christ, and turn to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6). Of Jesus, we must rediscover as nations, and as individuals: “He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, and King and Lord of the race!

THE BRITISH EMPIRE – AND PATRIOTIC PRAYER

It might be valuable to take in some of Forsyth’s historical reflections from our text book; and at the same time to bear in mind what has happened in the British Empire in recent years, particularly the advance of Islam into the very heart of British Society.

“February 8, 2008; LONDON – The archbishop of Canterbury called Thursday for Britain to adopt aspects of Islamic Shariah law alongside the existing legal system. His speech set off a storm of opposition among politicians, lawyers and others, including some Muslims. The archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, said in his speech and a BBC radio interview that the introduction of Shariah in family law was “unavoidable”.[11]

One wonders how Forsyth, Wesley, and Churchill, to name but a few, would view this nation, Britain, today. We might ask, and observe again, with Forsyth:

  1. We of this country have indeed much to answer for. Some of our greatest leaders and policies have been but pagan. Much of our conduct is still. But we remember that twice we have saved the liberty of the world – in the Armada, and at Waterloo. Have we become unworthy to do it again?
  2. We sent forth the great free people of the West.
  3. There are those who think that Britain’s record in such things as Slave Emancipation, Catholic Emancipation, the emancipation of the workman, the woman, and the child; [… show a growing repentance].
  4. In the self-denying ordinance taking effect in the government of India by way of atonement for its acquisition.
  5. In the treatment of South Africa since the Boer War, and especially of our enemies there (a treatment of which no other country than England was capable).
  6. I say there are those who think that such and other like things show a growing repentance which only prigs could call Pharisaism, and a moral power which only pagans would call quixotic [i.e. idealistic].
  7. These things place us in another class, so far as God’s Kingdom goes, from a nationalism which is ostentatiously outside moral or humane regards, and is abetted by its Church in their neglect.
  8. We have at least begun to reverse our engines. The cause of the weaker nations has often owed us much …[12]

He went on to encourage patriotic prayer, in so far as victory in the war, would be “a means to continue a service to that Kingdom which other nations have not yet given.”

“And yet, and yet. The present judgment is one upon a whole egoist and godless civilisation, of which we also are a part, and whose end is public madness.”[13]

[1] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 99.

[2] German Composers: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Wagner;

English Composers: Purcell, S. Wesley, Handel, etc. – all indicative of cultural achievement and success.

[3] Forsyth, p. 99.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWdeaths.htm

[6] Sans gêne: without embarrassment or constraint.

[7] Forsyth, p. 100.

[8] Forsyth, p. 101.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/world/europe/08canterbury.html?_r=1&ref=world&oref=slogin

[12] Forsyth, p. 77.

[13] Forsyth p. 103.

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 5

FAITH AMIDST CATASTROPHE

Study 5

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. (Jesus in Matt. 7:24-25)

‘…when historic progress seems to end around us in a social collapse and a moral anarchy … if the moral soul is anchored on the Gospel of the Cross and Kingdom of God in a historic crisis really greater than any war, it cannot be swept away by any currents or storms in history.’[1] (P. T. Forsyth)

INTRODUCTION

As we pursue our studies in The Justification of God, by P.T. Forsyth, it may be valuable to recall again what is at the core of our studies, namely theodicy. Theodicy has been called ‘Thee-ODD-I-see’. We do see much that seems ODD, particularly in terms of suffering and catastrophe. In many of the occurrences in our daily lives, things occur which can, and often do cause us to question, or at the very least, re-evaluate what we understand by the mercies and goodness of God.

Job had to work things right through, from his worship life as a praying, righteous man, to the onslaught of inexplicable evil, permitted by God to take place, through to the week long silence of his friends as they sat with him, while he suffered greatly; on to the inadequate words of his comfortless theological counsellors; and his own genuine protest; and his trust still – though he slay me, yet will I trust in him; yet finally God, the wonderful counsellor revealed himself as creator, and then acted as redeemer, blessing once again the suffering Job. Job repented. He changed his mind and his disposition.[2]

It was Epicurus (341-270 BC) who formulated the classic theodicy dilemma, which David Hume (1711-76) has subsequently expressed in the following way:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?[3]

It is the incarnation of God in Christ, however, in the very midst of human history, which ultimately shatters this philosophical formulation, rendering it untenable. For God, the Father, and Jesus the Son of God, reveal themselves, together with the Spirit, to be the God who suffers to the full – to the uttermost in abandonment and forsakenness.

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”-which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

At the same time, this is the God who is the only righteous enemy of all evil – human, demonic and satanic. This God comes in human flesh, to conquer evil, by holy love.

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8b).

We may give assent to such a biblical statement, and be glad of it, yet still find ourselves at a loss to respond to suffering and evil, when it arises in new, surprising and terrifying forms. Human suffering is so very unpleasant – in particular our own, or that of those near to us. Global suffering is so often tragic beyond comprehension (if we are not sedated and numbed by the sheer frequency of news updates, and the crass lack of reverence for life, often evident in TV programming). Global tragedy can confront us to Be Still and Know That I am God, and re-evaluate our own lives – when, in particular, faith is present.

C.S. LEWIS AND PAIN

In the film Shadowlands – the famous C.S. Lewis is giving a university lecture in which he addresses the great issues of life. In the movie (from my memory), he asks his students this question: ‘…and why does God allow us to suffer?’ There is a thoughtful pause, as the camera pans the lecture hall of students who are eagerly looking on. They brace themselves for the wisdom they have been seeking of late. Lewis proceeds confidently – providing the small beginnings of a profound answer to this age-old question. He has a note of certainty in his voice: ‘God lets us suffer because he wants us to grow up!’

Lewis is also well known for his comments regarding pain:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.[4]

Pain is the flag of truth, planted in a rebel fortress.

Fast forward to a later segment in C.S. Lewis’s life. His young wife Joy has died, and Lewis is writing his thoughts, and expressing his emotions. He is engulfed in grief, deep grief. He acknowledges the hope of the gospel. But he is negating one significant aspect. To paraphrase (again from memory), he says something like: Speak to me of the sovereign God, and I will listen. But speak to me of the God of comfort, and I cannot agree. I feel no comfort. No consolation. Only numbness. But no comfort![5]

Many will identify with Lewis at this point. It is not so easy just to grow up when it is our turn to suffer, intensely. Lewis reveals his emotions and thoughts. He illustrates the daily human struggle of coming to terms with life as it really is. On occasions, the pain – Christian or not – is very acute. We can ponder the reasons for suffering. We can even set them forth in a lecture, given from a biblical perspective. We can talk about them. It is another thing however, to be on the receiving end of incidents, for which, discussion seems entirely inappropriate.[6] Words fail us. Doctrines fail us. We need the breast of the Living Jesus on which to lay our head (John 13:23).

Suffering and sadness at the death of a loved one under not uncommon circumstances, like cancer, can be very tiring, tearing and most difficult. However, when blatant human evil is in our face as the immediate cause of our pain, and when sinister powers seem to dominate and destroy human life, in murder, massacre and mayhem, then we are likely to ask, or to be faced with the most difficult and most probing of human questions.

FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY ON THEODICY

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his famous book The Brothers Karamazov[7] has a fictional character named Ivan Karamazov, who says of God and creation:

‘I accept God plainly and simply … I accept his divine wisdom and his purpose …  I believe in the underlying order and meaning of life. I believe in the eternal harmony into which we are all supposed to merge one day’. However, almost immediately he tells his brother Alyosha: ‘I refuse to accept this world of God’s … Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created. I do not accept God’s world and I refuse to accept it’.

Ivan then proceeds to explain why he cannot bring himself to accept this world of God’s. He mentions a number of cases of extreme and gratuitous cruelty, in particular the report of an army general who fed an eight year-old boy to his hounds because the child had slightly injured his favourite dog with a stone. Ivan says:

‘Listen: if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have children to do with it – tell me please?  It is entirely incomprehensible why they should have to buy harmony by their sufferings. Why should they, too, be used as dung for someone else’s future harmony?

Ivan then concludes:

I don’t want harmony … too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission … It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

Ivan is not an atheist, but he finds it morally repugnant that God should (seem to) expect such a terrible price to be paid for the final bliss and harmony that he will bestow on humankind at the end of time. [8] Some suggest that too much freedom was given to Adam.

How are we to respond to this type of reasoning? Perhaps, with silence, prayer and trust in God? Is it true love to speak of Christ, in the face of tragic and terrible deeds? Is it usually best left for another day? What then do we say or do on another day? Have we merely theories of the cross to share, and mere words to offer, for the loss of a loved one? Or is there a time and a season for speaking even into the most difficult of objections, of God’s goodness? Is this all profoundly a matter of ‘soul making’, fitting us for glory? Do we not have a Person, to offer, a Redeemer, Jesus, the friend, glorified flesh and blood, who has been there in the deepest of suffering, made to be sin, in order to redeem?

What indeed has God given us in Jesus Christ?

What He has not given us is a scheme of rational optimism, or a visible process of good, dawning and spreading to its perfect day. He has given us no programme of happy things.[9]

What then?  It is said that we have nothing but the promises of God. But these are all:

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God (1 Corinthians 3:21b-23).

Forsyth always draws us back to God’s one moral Act of holiness, destroying sin’s guilt:

No reason of man can justify God for His treatment of His Son; but whatever does justify it justifies God’s whole providence with the universe, and solves its problem. He so spared not His Son as with Him to give us all things. The true theology of the Cross and its atonement is the solution of the world. There is no other. It is that or none.[10]

Our faith rose from ‘the sharpest crisis, the greatest war, the deadliest death, and the deepest grave the world ever knew – in Christ’s Cross’[11].

“The chief cause of our being unhinged by catastrophe is twofold”.

First, that we have drawn our faith from the order of the world instead of its crisis, from the integrity of the moral order rather than from the tragedy of its recovery in the Cross.

And, even if we start there, the second error is that we have been more engrossed with the ill we are saved from than with Him who saves us, and the Kingdom for which we are saved.  We are more taken up with the wrongs so many men have to bear than with the wrong God has to bear from us all – God who yet atones and redeems in giving us a Kingdom which is always His in reality and ours in reversion.

It is not as if God first redeemed, and, having thus prepared the ground, brought in the Kingdom; but He redeemed us by bringing in the Kingdom, and setting it up in eternal righteousness and Eternal Life. The Cross of Christ is not the preliminary of the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom breaking in. It is not the clearing site for the heavenly city; it is the city itself descending out of heaven from God.[12]


[1] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 85.

[2] Job 42:1-6.

[3] Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, Basil Blackwell, 1986, Oxford, p. 2.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Fontana, 1957, p. 81.

[5] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Seabury Press, 1961.

[6] Job 2:13 ‘They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’.

[7] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, (1880) 2003, Penguin Books.

[8] Quoted by Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, Basil Blackwell, 1986, Oxford, p. 96-97.

[9] Forsyth, p. 79.

[10] Forsyth, p. 122.

[11] Forsyth, p. 57.

[12] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 76-77.