The Quest for Hope Part 2: The Problem of Suffering

I am still battling to find it, I must confess. Hope, that is. It is elusive. Please do not worry, if you are a long-standing personal friend and know my struggle with depression. This is not that kind of hopelessness I mean. It is not me, personally, that I have a problem with (although no doubt I contribute to the problem); it is humanity. Far from being the pinnacle of all Creation, as my Judeo-Christian tradition would have me believe, it seems to me that we are a blight on nature. Refusing to be deterred from a self-destructive path, determined to take as much of the planet’s life down with us as we go, we are a brutal, self-serving, careless species, and it seems to me that the universe would be better off without us. I cannot fathom how humanity can be redeemed.

 

But here is the dilemma. I also believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Much as I reject the notion that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and despite being content to regard much of what it contains as human mythologising, I do not believe that it is intellectually honest to simply dismiss the gospel narratives as “false”. That “true/false” binary is a product of Western rationalism and ought to be regarded with as much skepticism as any other worldview. So while I have no doubt that the gospel writers embellished their narratives to further their particular agendas, I also am convinced that they created their mythologies in an attempt to explain real events. That is how ancient people “did” history. They were not trying to lie or mislead, there was no nefarious agenda; they simply told the stories of their experiences in culturally appropriate ways. In today’s post-Enlightenment world, we tell our stories differently. We want empirically verifiable facts. The gospel writers didn’t have those ideological constraints. That’s why today we tend either to judge them and dismiss them as “false” or feel compelled to embrace them as incontrovertible. Our Western dualism forces us into that dichotomy.

 

The thing is, if Jesus rose from the dead, I have to at least consider the interpretation of that event that the early Christians projected onto it: that things will one day be restored. They even went a step further, though. The early Christian hope was not that we would all one day go to heaven when we die. That is something Christians of later centuries added. The early Christians believed in God’s Kingdom inaugurated on earth in the here and now. They held that all of that apocalyptic stuff about God coming to dwell with Hen’s people and bringing about Hen’s Kingdom – all that stuff that was supposed to happen at the end of time – had already happened with the crucifixion of Jesus. Death, the final enemy, they believed, had already been conquered. All that remained was for Jesus to come and finish the process he started.

 

It raises a conundrum for me. If death is the enemy, how do I reconcile that with evolution in general? Death is fundamental to life as we know it. And humans have become experts at mastering death. Our cruelty to animals in order to satiate our carnivorous appetites is horrific; we can enact the most despicable horrors (like, for example, crucifixion) on our fellow humans in the name of justice, peace or patriotism. Harnessing death has made us rulers of the earth. Finding more efficient ways either to kill or to avoid being killed is the cornerstone of the evolution of life. Death is both necessary and despicable. Where does that leave God?

 

You see, the trouble with embracing monotheism is that there is nobody else to blame for the ugliness. I don’t believe in Satan – in any external embodiment of evil, for that matter. The reason I think the concept of Satan is so appealing to Christians, and why they so vehemently resist any challenge to the legitimacy of belief in Satan or Hell, is because it allows them to answer the question of the problem of suffering so conveniently by absolving God of all blame. I do not have that luxury.

 

Nor can I accept the common explanation that death’s presence is a result of human sin. If evolution is true (and contrary to what many Christians would argue, the case is strong – certainly stronger than the contrived ‘young earth’ arguments), then death precedes the appearance of humans on the planet. So it is not enough  – as Peter Enns so delightfully says – to ‘pin the evolutionary tail on the evangelical donkey’. Evolution and Christianity seem fundamentally incompatible. One cannot reconcile the existence of a loving God for whom death is an enemy, with (presumably) a Created world order that necessitates death. Not without radically reconceptualising God.

 

The obvious answers are either that there is no God, or that if there is, that God is – for lack of a better word – evil. That is where logic takes me. But that is why Jesus is such a thorn for me. Not just through wishful thinking (in fact, it would be far easier if I did not), I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And that raises more questions than it answers. If Jesus is the visible representation of the invisible God, as both he and Paul seem to claim, then his ethics and his teachings would suggest that God abhors violence. This makes sense to me: a nonviolent ethic is the only hope I can see to humanity’s ugliness. Only a collective adoption of a loving way of being in the world can offer any chance of a shift away from the scourge that is our legacy on this planet. But if Jesus is the visible representation of the invisible God, as both he and Paul seem to claim, then that also begs the question why such a God would create a world that not only allows suffering and death, but necessitates it.

 

I know many of you wrestle with these same questions, and I wish I had some sort of conclusion for you, dear reader. I wish I could say: this is how I managed to resolve this conundrum. But I do not. Then again – and this is perhaps the only consolation I can offer – I do not think faith is the same thing as certainty. That understanding is a product of a rationalist paradigm. Faith is not, I think, a conclusion one arrives at after evaluating evidence; it is not a moment of either intellectual or emotional epiphany. Coming to faith is not an event. Faith is a journey through the turbulent seas of uncertainty, not knowing how to go on, but electing to forge ahead anyway. Maybe faith is not something I discover or acquire. Maybe it is something I live. Maybe faith is a way of being in the world – a Jesus-way of being in the world – that expresses itself as we could be rather than as we are.

 

I am still battling to find it, I must confess. Hope, that is. It is elusive. Maybe, like faith, hope is not an intellectual activity. And maybe hope, too, like faith, is not a treasure we unveil but a path we walk. Maybe it is does not even require me to feel hopeful, just as faith does not require certainty. Maybe living in Christian hope means accepting the discomfort of the contradictions, not feeling compelled to choose one way or the other, but confronting the complexity with all the honesty I can muster.

2 thoughts on “The Quest for Hope Part 2: The Problem of Suffering

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  1. Wonderful and insightful post. I agree with all you have said. Two brilliant thinkers stand out in this discussion: Dale Allison – his work on the gospels (theological concerns) and Chris Barrigar – his book Freedom All The Way Down (scientific concerns) where he deftly defends all evolution in light of a loving and gracious father.

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