God and Suffering: Theologia Crucis

The Christian view of God is in some ways unique among the world’s religions because it embraces an idiosyncratic theological stance on two key issues: (1) unmerited grace as salvific versus works-righteousness; and (2) suffering as the epitome of human existence versus pleasure (in this life). The first stance (i.e., grace) is unique to Christianity but will not concern us here. What we will examine in this paper is the Christian view of suffering—that is, a theology of suffering. Many ask the modest question: if God exists (being omnipotent and good), how is it that suffering and evil exist too? The Christian view of suffering is rooted in a theology of the cross, which itself is rooted in the person of Christ Himself; namely, God crucified. I will argue in this paper that suffering, for the Christians, is the accepted form of existence because the God that Christians claim to worship was Himself the epitome of suffering. Hence, if a theology of the cross is at the center of Christian thinking then suffering and God go hand-in-hand. Suffering, then, from a Christian perspective, is a part of our theology and coexists with God, finding itself converging with God Himself in the body of Christ hanging on the cross.

Before we look at suffering as the accepted form of Christian existence, I would like to first briefly look at the Christian view that God is love (1 John 4:8). In standard philosophical circles, love is seen as that great abstract idea/feeling/commitment that presupposes the existence of freedom. A programmed automaton that “loves” God because he/she was programmed to “love” does not love out of personal choice but out of impersonal necessity (that is, the “love” offered by such an automaton belongs to the programmer, and is, thus, the activity of the programmer himself [the programmer being God in this example]). If God is love then God is freedom; that is, God exists in a fluid and changing freewill-run environment. Out of this chaos, love is born. Nonetheless, the presupposition is that this chaotic freedom exists because of love and the possibility of love. If love is possible, then, on the flip side, hate is possible; if hate is possible, evil is possible. Risks are inevitable? “[T]he risk-free alternatives of not loving or of trying to control another person is evidence of insecurity and weakness, if not sickness.”[1] But where is God? God is to be found amidst the chaos of human choice. God wills the good, but love demands that human freedom be exercised. Inevitably, God is handcuffed by love and is left sitting on the sidelines of human evil. All for the sake of love. A preliminary response to the problem of evil could always be this: evil exists because human freedom exists. Despite this, the Christian view is that God is not merely a God who sits passively on the sidelines forever; we believe that God participates in our suffering. This brings us to a theology of the cross (and suffering).

The Christian worldview finds its point of departure the cross of Christ. Christ is seen as God incarnate coming down to humanity to participate alongside it in its suffering. Alongside this view, Christians also embrace the view that this world is not perfect and is in a fallen state; we live in a postlapsarian world. This means that we are, as a whole, in a state of exile; we live apart from God and we live in a state of animosity towards God. It is into this mess that God through the man of Christ comes. The Christian message is that God doesn’t merely step into this mess in order to fix it; He becomes entangled in its affairs. Like a father who gives up his day job in order to work alongside his son at a coal mine, so is God seen as not merely standing by humanity but also being intimately tied up in its mundane tasks. Rather than issue commands from on high and at a distance, the Christian God is seen as offering commands from within the life of the community. A God who participates in your suffering is more believable than a God who merely comments upon your suffering. Jurgen Moltmann writes, quoting F. W. J. Schelling, “‘Every being can be revealed only in its opposite. Love only in hatred, unity only in conflict.’ Applied to Christian theology, this means that God is only revealed as ‘God’ in his opposite: godlessness and abandonment by God. In concrete terms, God is revealed in the cross of Christ who was abandoned by God.” [2] The Christian God is then not only suffering par excellence but also, it would seem, the only God that has ever been revealed to humanity—in the oppositeness of His paradox existence.

In all this, God is not to be seen as a powerless homeless man living on the brink of suicide; rather, God is to be seen as a powerful Being who is able to give up power because of the amount of power. If love is seen as weakness, and God is love, this would then seem to imply that God is weak. I would like to suggest that (contra Nietzsche) though to love is to be weak, those who are most strongest actually can will to love and thus be weak. I would like to use a simple analogy. Let us imagine that a powerful king resides on a city built on a hill. He is so powerful that his city does not need to be walled. A city that is unwalled is seen to be “weak”; however, this king is so powerful that he can risk being weak without actually losing much power. To love is to be weak, that is true, but to love is to also demonstrate power. If God is love and love is essentially weakness (a giving up of absolute control), God must ironically be strong enough to love! I think that, as in my analogy, God is embracing all aspects of love, weakness, strength, and suffering. A God who is strong enough to give up power in order to love is also strong enough to redeem that which was lost in suffering.

Given the arguments made above, I don’t think that evil rules out the existence of God, from a Christian perspective. Moreover, I do not see how it is possible to call something good or evil apart from an objective moral framework; that is, if an atheist calls into question the existence of God based on his/her experience of evil in this world, how does he/she determine what is “evil” anyways? To use Ravi Zacharias’ point: “If [the] assertion that no moral order is visible in the world is true, we may well ask why Hitler couldn’t introduce his own order. What was wrong with what he did? What is the basis on which [we are] calling Hitler immoral?” [3] To be blunt, the moment you speak of evil in an objective sense is the moment you speak of God with the same breath. In conclusion, I do not think that evil posses any problems for the existence of God. It is something that merely is—deal with it.

[1] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 57-8.

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 27.

[3] Ravi Zacharias, The End of Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 52.

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