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Comfort Within the Boundaries: Finding One’s Voice Regarding Evil

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The terrorist attacks in New York City and in Washington, D.C. this week have left many of us with more questions than answers. Pastors, teachers, and counselors may have an especially difficult time as they attempt to help others while still processing the news themselves. For this reason, I have prepared the following comments as a service to the shepherds.

I have developed some of this material elsewhere in published form (especially in Humanity and Sin [Word, 1999]). With the exception of acknowledged quotations, the words are all mine, but the thoughts are not unique to me. I have gleaned much from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987), Douglas Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia (Eerdmans, 1999), and a number of works regarding Martin Luther’s theology of the cross.

Individual believers have been responding to the terrorist attacks in a number of different ways. Like most everyone else, we are shocked, stricken with grief, angry, and confused. However, Christians are particularly prone to offer explanations, and most of those explanations do more harm than good. In responding to them here I will begin with observations about what believers may be thinking, and will then make some suggestions about what we should and should not say.

“Apocalypse Now”

Some may see the horrific evil at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and regard it as a sign of the imminent return of Christ.

Rather than seeing this event as a sign of Christ’s return, it is better to regard it as a reminder of His absence. We await the return of the ascended, glorified Christ, who will establish justice on that day (2 Thess. 1:6-10). But this is not the day of justice. This is the day injustice reminds us that justice is yet future. In His absence we are called to persevere, by the Spirit, in a world filled with tribulation (John 16:33).

Note: The problem of evil is essentially a problem of failed expectations and the apparent absence of God. As Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). In the same way, the psalmist slaved each day under the taunt of his captors—“Where is your God now?” (Psalm 42:3, 10; 115:2).

It is rather ethnocentric of American believers to view these terrorist attacks as apocalyptic signs, for they likely said nothing of the sort when tragedies struck elsewhere (massive earthquakes in India, for example).

Severe trials have always (rightly) caused believers to cry out for the return of Christ. However, it would be a mistake to regard such trials as meaningful signs of a day we simply cannot predict (Acts 1:7). Instead, we are reminded of what we do not know (Eccl. 9:1, 12; 10:14; 11:5, 6; James 4:13-15).

“Judgment Day”

Some will regard national tragedies as signs of God's judgment upon America. (For example, I had a student who suggested that this might be God’s judgment upon America for the sin of abortion.)

It is true that God exercises judgment upon nations and uses both righteous and unrighteous agents to do so. However, it is always a mistake to presume we know His intentions in allowing or ordaining particular events apart from special revelation concerning them. That was the mistake made by Job’s friends, who assumed his suffering to be an expression of judgment. It was also the mistake made by Saul (later Paul) and many of his peers, who saw the cross as a sign of divine judgment upon one who must have been a criminal (2 Cor. 5:16; Gal. 3:13).

A post-Easter consideration of the cross, compared to the way it was seen on Good Friday, reinforced Martin Luther’s rejection of Aristotelian logic and natural theology as means by which God and His will may be known. He wrote, “He does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.” By contrast, he said a theologian of the cross “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

Alister McGrath summarized Luther’s theology of the cross this way: “Experience cannot be allowed to have the final word—it must be judged and shown up as deceptive and misleading. The theology of the cross draws our attention to the sheer unreliability of experience as a guide to the presence and activity of God. God is active and present in his world, quite independently of whether we experience him as being so. Experience declared that God was absent from Calvary, only to have its verdict humiliatingly overturned on the third day.”

Those who regard this as a sign of God’s judgment upon American wickedness are essentially agreeing with the terrorist perpetrators. To the contrary, this massive injustice, which came upon victims indiscriminately, must not be seen as just (declared to be righteous). More will be said about this below.

Those who regard this as a sign of God’s judgment typically have particular sins in mind (e.g., abortion), but those sins are rarely their own. This attitude reflects a “Christ against culture” approach to the world that wrongly assumes the possibility of genuine separation from the world and does not take seriously the inevitability of sin and injustice even within the church.

“Onward Christian Soldiers”

Most Americans are responding to these events with a tremendous sense of community resolve. They are working together with great passion to help the victims, restore the nation’s sense of well-being, and protect our freedoms. Collectively, we are also angry. As many recognize, there is great danger that our anger would result in vengeance (rather than justice), in ethnic violence, and (for the church) in an abandonment of our mission. If we are to have a distinctively Christian voice in the world, we must lead the way in calls for justice, not vengeance, and we must resist the nationalism or ethnocentrism that could so easily be expressed in violence against Muslims or Middle Easterners.

The church is by definition multi-national (Acts 2) and multi-ethnic (Acts 8, 10; Eph. 2-3). When the gathered church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, we affirm our faith in Christ and our hope in His return through a ceremonial meal that underscores our communion with other believers throughout the world and throughout history. We must beware of aligning a church body with any political entity (e.g., having the gathered church recite the Pledge of Allegiance), for that inevitably minimizes that church body as it identifies itself in distinction from (rather than in communion with) the universal church.

Christ is enthroned above every principality and power, and in Him we are committed to a higher citizenship (Col. 1:15-20). His supreme authority sets limits on every other power, including government. To identify Him with any nation is to limit Him.

If those who see terrorist attacks as signs of God’s judgment demonstrate a “Christ against culture” orientation to the world, those who respond with patriotic fervor demonstrate a “Christ of culture” approach. (The categories come from H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.) This approach risks identifying His cause too closely with our own, reducing the mission of the church to some nationalistic agenda. This was the mistake of the church in the time of Constantine and it was repeated by both American and German Liberals in the early 20th century. The lesson to be learned is that a church identifying too closely with any political agenda risks losing the gospel.

Injustice and tragedy reminds us that Christ is absent, yet returning. As a consequence of His resurrection and ascension, the church exists in tension. We are still in the world yet experiencing a down-payment on the day of redemption through the presence of the Spirit (Eph. 4:30). We remain in the world in which Christ was crucified, yet we have a sure promise for the world in which He prepares a place for us.

If we reduce that tension by associating ourselves too closely with the world to come, we adopt a “Christ against culture” model and separate too much from our existing communities.

If we reduce the tension by associating the ascended Christ too closely with this present world and our agenda in it, we adopt a “Christ of culture” model and lose the hope of His return.

We are in the world, as the events of this week surely remind us, yet not of it (Heb. 11:13).

“It makes sense if you think about it.”

Tragedy confronts us with a troubling inconsistency. We want to affirm that God is good, just, and sovereign, yet we see events take place that obviously violate His ideals. Almost instinctively, we usually try to resolve that inconsistency in one of two ways. We either redefine God to accommodate our experience or we redefine our experience to accommodate our understanding of God.

Redefining God to Accommodate Our Experience

We must not deny God’s existence (the atheist’s response to the problem of evil). Faith affirms that He is and that He rewards those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6).

As noted above, the problem of evil is a problem of failed expectations and the apparent absence of God. To ask “Where is your God now?” is simply to say that He has not acted in accordance with one’s expectations.

Asaph’s response in Psalm 73 was to change his expectations (“Apart from Thee, I desire nothing on earth.”) The response from Psalm 115 is that God must not be confused with a vending machine: “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”

A theology of the cross would add that in suffering God may be found precisely where He was on Good Friday: identifying with us in our suffering, acting to resolve that suffering in ways we may not see or imagine, and yet sovereign in the heavens, accomplishing his eternal purposes

We must not say that God did not know this was going to happen (the temptation of open theism). He “declares the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), and did not have to wait until He saw the second plane coming to know what it was going to do.

We must not say that God could not prevent it, or that He always allows evil people to proceed with their free acts (another temptation of open theism). To say this is to do away with the God of the Exodus.

Note: It does not help to say that He typically does not intervene with the free acts of persons. If He ever intervenes, the question remains: Why did He not intervene this time? And a problem remains: He does not usually answer such questions.

We must not deny God’s goodness or His justice, for that is to deny His nature as He has revealed Himself (Ex. 34:6-7; Psa. 25:7-8).

We must not confuse divine providence with “chance” or say that God acts capriciously (James 1:17).

Redefining Our Experience to Accommodate God

We must not treat evil as if it is good. We must not justify evil, declaring it to be right. This is perhaps the most prevalent evangelical response to evil events. We try to “make sense” of these events by explaining why they must have occurred even in a world governed by a sovereign and loving God.

We must not make peace with death.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Yale philosopher who lost an adult son in a mountain climbing accident, wrote that someone said to his wife, “I hope you're learning to live at peace with Eric's death.” Wolterstorff responded,

“Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fullness 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.” (Lament for a Son [Eerdmans, 1987], 63)

We must not make sin and evil seem reasonable by attempting to explain why they occurred. Sin must always be inexplicable. It is never the sensible, the rational, or the appropriate thing.

Survivors will tell remarkable stories of close calls, and their families will say, “God heard our prayers.” It is true that God should be praised for their deliverance. For precisely that reason we must resist the temptation to attribute the survivor’s deliverance to human piety (either the survivor’s or someone else’s). Some of the victims were nearly spared, yet perished, and even as I write many of their family members continue to pray in futile hope for their safety. We simply do not know why one survives and another does not, and we should not attempt to explain what God has not revealed to us.

God does use evil for good, but that does not make the evil itself good. Evil remains evil. There will be good things that come from these tragic events. Some people will take the gospel more seriously. Others will form closer relationships with friends and family. Future tragedies may be averted because airport security is tightened. But we must never focus so much on these “good results” that through them the evil events begin to look good. When anecdotes about happy outcomes make us think we understand why it had to happen, we have crossed out of bounds.

We must not rob our people of grief and hope. Our hope is for a day in which there will be no mourning, crying, or pain. Our grief is that this is not that day. When, by rationalizing or justifying evil, we call this the day of justice, we render hope irrelevant and grief unnecessary.

We must not claim to know more than we really know. Perhaps this is the most basic conclusion, the only thing left to say after all the platitudes have been stripped away. We believe that God exists and that He is good, just, and sovereign. We believe that He oversees all things by His providence and that His purposes are good. But we do not pretend to know those purposes, and we dare not offer explanations where God has chosen to remain silent.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Hamartiology (Sin), Cultural Issues, Suffering, Trials, Persecution, Comfort

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