God, Suffering and Death

February 19, 2007

Tonight I am to lead a session in our Diocese’s lay training course on “God, suffering and death”. When I was first phoned and asked to do it, I misunderstood the subject. I thought it was “God’s Suffering and Death” which didn’t make sense, since God cannot die. So I suggested I rename it “Christ’s Suffering and Death” since I thought I would be leading a session on the Passion. It was only when I received written instructions for the evening that I realised I had misunderstood the title, and what I would be encouraging the group to talk about was “What does the Cross say about suffering and death in the world? Where is God in our personal pain and loss?” – so the BIG question for believers today.

As part of my preparation, I have gone back to two sermons I preached in 2001 as part of our parish series on the big questions of the Christian Faith for today.

This is a pastiche of the hymn “All things Bright and Beautiful” by the Monty Python team, which I first read at a study day on the use of poems in preaching:
All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty.
The Lord God made the lot.

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom,
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid;
Who made the spiky urchin,
Who made the sharks? He did.

All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small,
Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.

When, in a previous parish, I wanted to publish that poem in the parish magazine, to stimulate discussion about creation and suffering, it was refused, on the grounds that it would upset people and disturb their faith.

Each time that we recite the Nicene Creed, we state that ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen”. Yet many Christians, it seems, reject, consciously or unconsciously, the implication of that belief, that God is responsible for everything we experience – the bad as well as the good, the beasts as well as the beauty.

We believe in a God who is both the omnipotent creator of all things, and who is also good. And there lies the problem for faith.
How can a good God let bad things happen? The attempts to answer this question are technically known as ‘theodicy’ – the defence of God in the light of evil and suffering.

We can divide evil into two categories: moral evil, the evil that is caused by human action, or sin; and natural evil, the suffering that comes about from natural forces, like disease and death, earthquakes and floods.

The first sort of evil, human sin, was dealt with last week the sermon on the Fall. What I want to consider this week is the other sort of evil, the natural sort.

This sort of evil is probably the most powerful element in the undermining of Christian belief – which is probably why people don’t like to think about it. Charles Darwin is reported to have said: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae ( a species of wasp that lays its eggs in the paralysed bodies of other species’ caterpillars ) with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars”. Others of us, perhaps, feel the same when we watch a big cat chase and devour a gazelle, or when we see pictures of the devastation caused by the recent earthquake in India.

One solution to the problem of natural evil is to blame it, like moral evil, on human sin. This approach maintains that pain and suffering were no part of God’s original plan for the universe. So, Alistair Macgrath says in his ‘Introduction to Christianity’: “ Affirming the goodness of creation avoids the suggestion, unacceptable to most theologians, that God is responsible for evil. The destructive force of sin is not present in the world by God’s design or permission. An essential component of the Christian doctrine of sin is recognition that the world has departed from the trajectory upon which God placed it in the work of creation. It has become deflected from its intended course”.

The occasion of this deflection was Adam’s fall from grace. This created moral disorder, but also allowed an opening for demonic influence to disrupt the perfection of Eden and bring in pain and death. On the psychological level, this explanation of natural suffering seems to me to be the equivalent, at a global level, of the self-centredness of the toddler who imagines that his anger is capable of destroying what he hates. On the scientific level, this explanation is unacceptable, since we know that the causes of natural suffering predate the emergence of the human species. We know from things like the fossils of dinosaurs which show they suffered from painful arthritis, that created life has always been characterized by suffering, disease, struggle and death. There is no discontinuity in natural history, no golden age from which creation has declined.

Another explanation for pain and disease, as it affects human beings, is that it is a punishment for wrongdoing. We hear this argument quite often in the Bible, and it is the situation that lies behind the Book of Job. Some truth can be seen in this approach, since human wrongdoing can exacerbate natural evil, for instance when we pollute the environment with known carcinogens, or build in known earthquake areas, like the San Andreas fault line. However, its shortcoming, as Job protests, is that pain and suffering so often come upon those who are innocent of wrongdoing. The book of Job gives no solution to the problem: it simply ends with Job being reduced to silence by the encounter with God, and then a rather fairy-tale ending where Job is restored to his former health and prosperity. Both this solution and the Fall theodicy also suffer from the defect that they leave God responsible for the deliberate creation of evil.
Another explanation for evil, ‘instrumental theodicy’ says that suffering and evil are necessary if human beings are to develop virtues. This theodicy is expressed in a poem by C L Drawbridge, entitled ‘Pain’.
The cry of man’s anguish went up unto God,
Lord, take away pain!
The shadow that darkens the world thou hast made; the close coiling chain
That strangles the heart; the burden that weighs
On the wings that would soar.
Lord, take away pain from the world Thou hast made, That it love thee the more.

Then answered the Lord to the world He had made,
“Shall I take away Pain,
And with it the power of the soul to endure,
Made strong by the strain?
Shall I take away pity, that knits heart to heart,
And sacrifice high?
Will you lose all your heroes, that lift from the flame white brows to the sky?
Shall I take away love that redeems with a price,
And smiles through the loss?
Can you spare from the lives that would cling unto mine, the Christ on his cross?”

There is validity in this approach, that sees a world of suffering and evil as “ a vale of soulmaking “ ( in Keats’s phrase); but it suffers from the limitations that it still leaves God as directly responsible for evil, and as a sort of ‘cosmic sadist’ outside the suffering world, using pain and disease to ‘test’ people, who are often destroyed, rather than ennobled, by the process.

Various theologians have attempted a solution by redefining what is meant by God’s omnipotence. So, Anselm says that God cannot do anything that is inconsistent with the divine nature – so God cannot lie or commit sin. And William of Ockham elaborates this in saying that God has to be reliable, and in making certain choices has limited the divine ability to make other choices. He distinguishes between the absolute power of God ( what was possible before the world was created ) and the ordained power of God ( what is possible once the world is created, if God is to be consistent).

This idea of divine self-limitation, from the 14th century, has become important in modern theology. One strand of this is ‘process theology’, which stems from the recognition that reality is not static and unchanging, but dynamic, characterised by becoming, change, event. What is in process has to have a freedom to develop and be influenced by surroundings. So Teilhard de Chardin identifies God with the background of order within the process, but who allows creation the freedom to develop in its own way. Causation is not to be identified with coercion; God can only act by influence and persuasion within the limits of the process Godself has decreed, and will not intervene to prevent famine or disease or death.

This freedom has to be allowed to inanimate matter as well as to animate. Now it may seem nonsensical to say this – to say that, for instance, the tectonic plates, whose movements cause earthquakes, have free will. Here our scientific understanding of the way the world is comes into play. The more we understand about the way the world has evolved, the more we understand how everything is interrelated, how animate beings emerged from the inanimate ( the characters emerging from the scenery, as John Polkinhorne puts it) the more we see that the created order is a package deal. We may think that if we had been in charge we would have done better, created a world of beauty without the beasts; but science says that is not possible.

The conditions which allowed animal and human life to develop on the earth also allow earthquakes and volcanoes. The same biochemical processes that allow cells to mutate, making evolution of human beings with free consciousness possible, also allow them to become cancerous and create tumours. This is the ‘free process defence’ which is analogous to the ‘free will defence’ of human evil. God does not directly will earthquakes or cancer, but allows both to happen in a world given the gift of being itself. It is the inescapable cost of a creation allowed to be other than God, free of tight control.

All this may provide an intellectually satisfying answer to the why and how of natural evil; but it does not meet the emotional need to protest against undeserved suffering, and to hold God to account for it. We find the idea of a God who is outside the process morally repugnant. Which is where Christology comes in. Christian doctrine says that we believe that Christ, the Logos, is God’s agent in creation, and that God is as Jesus reveals God to us.

The assertion that Christ is the agent of creation ties up with the discoveries of the science of ecology, that somehow sacrifice seems to be built into the process of creation. The whole process began with the death of burnt out stars, creating the elements which are the building blocks of life. The process continues with one species preying on another, with some species dying out so that others may evolve. The whole process is costly, but necessary.

But for God to be transcendentally above the whole process is morally unconvincing. But the doctrine of the incarnation says that God is not. If God is revealed by Christ, it is a god who shares our struggles and our suffering, who is within the process – a God who dies. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “ Only a suffering God will do”. So, through Christ, we now have an understanding of God who has emptied Godself, and of God’s creative activity as continuously in operation, struggling to bring life and beauty out of violence and pain.

In this sort of theology, the proper response to suffering is not to explain it away, or to blame it onto God, or the Devil or Adam and Eve, but to struggle against it in the name of love and beauty and truth if it can be overcome. This is the principle behind Liberation theology and the theology of protest. But if sacrifice is unavoidable then like Jesus in Gethsemane, we must face it, accept it, look it in the eye and go through it in the faith that God’s love and beauty will ultimately triumph.

So, the proper question to ask of a loving God is not ‘where does suffering come from?’ but ‘Where does it lead’. And the answer is to resurrection, to the renewal of the created order that is pictured in Genesis and in Revelation – to the situation where the love and beauty of God who is the Ground of our Being has overcome all evil and suffering, even Satan himself.

The situation described in a final poem, by James Stephens, called
The fullness of time.

On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone.
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done, and he
Rested in eternity.

And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend,
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.

Gabriel without a frown,
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer,
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.

Creation Theology.

In the beginning was a golden cosmic egg of fire, which contained the universal spirit. The spirit took the form of the first man Purusha. The gods sacrificed Purusha, and from his body created the cosmos and human beings in their castes. The Creator god, Brahman, slept within a lotus flower floating on the waters of chaos. When he awoke, he set about creation. At first he made many mistakes, and from ignorance created the demons and the beings of darkness. The cosmos thus created lasts 4320 earth years, gradually seeing a deterioration in morals. The God Vishnu, the preserver, intervenes periodically to put things right, but at the end of each cosmic era, the god Shiva destroys the universe, and everything, gods included is dissolved, a new Brahman is born and the cycle of creation begins again.

That is a summary of a Hindu creation story.
All cultures have creation stories, derived from their observation of the world, interpreted according to their beliefs about how the world works, both physically and spiritually.

In our culture, we tend to operate with a combination of two creation stories: a scientific creation story, or rather a pseudo-scientific one, made up, for most people, of half-understood bits of scientific theories about the Big Bang and evolution, combined, to a greater or lesser extent with religious beliefs from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is that combination we are looking at this morning, to try to see what sort of creation theology it might be reasonable to hold in the light of modern knowledge.

Our creation theology is fundamental to our faith. It bears on our doctrine of God, how we understand God to operate in relation to human beings and the creation; it has implications for our understanding of sin, suffering and evil; it interacts with our understanding of the Bible and how God is revealed to us; it affects our understanding of the person of Jesus, his birth, death and resurrection; how we understand the created world has implications for our approach to miracles; it also has implications for ethics, how we decide what is right and what is wrong; finally, how we think about the creation of the world has implications for how we think the world will come to an end – what in theological language is known as eschatology.

In our society, creation theory is often presented as a straight choice between ‘science’ and ‘religion’. By the scientific theory is meant a vague alliance between theories from physics of a world which began with the big bang, and which operates according to fixed and unchanging laws and a biology based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, completely random natural selection by survival of the fittest. All this, it is said, is fact, proved by the observations of astro-physicists and palaeontologists.

On the religious side is often meant an acceptance of chapter 1 of Genesis ( and sometimes chapter 2, though it is not often acknowledged that there are two different accounts ) as a literal, historical description of the creation of the world during 6 days in 4004 BC, or a sort of divinely guaranteed scientific textbook of the mechanism of creation. To it’s supporters, this is fact, revealed by God through the Bible; to it’s detractors it is just ‘faith’ with no factual basis.

However, it is not as simple as that! All creation stories, including scientific ones, are just that – stories, theories deduced from observations of the physical universe. Whether it was the Big Bang or the creation of the Garden of Eden, there were no human beings there at the time to observe and record what went on! Scientific theories set up a model that seems to fit the data available -but the model is always a provisional one, and is modified as new data becomes available. Models of the process of creation of the universe and the evolution of animal species change fairly frequently, as new discoveries and observations are made. For instance, in the last week or so, the analysis of a grain of crystal discovered in Australia has pushed back by about half a billion years estimates of the time at which the earth cooled sufficiently for rocks to have formed; the discovery of two giant planets in the Aquarius and Serpens constellations has changed theories about the maximum size of planets possible; and the discovery of a skeleton of an early humanoid has changed current theories about where the first humans as apart from other primates came from.
The idea of the universe as a closed system, operating according to immutable laws, is also now ‘old hat’. Observations are now challenging even Einstein’s theory of relativity. suggesting that at one time in the universe’s history, light may have moved at a faster rate than now. It is now seen that there are ‘gaps’ in the predictability of physical laws. This is called ‘chaos theory’ or ‘the butterfly effect’.

On the other hand, biblical interpretation and theologies of creation are not static, but are changing, in conversation with scientific discoveries. Some of the greatest minds of the scientific world were also religious- even if like Newton they were somewhat unorthodox, or like Galileo, they got into trouble with the religious authorities of their time. Many modern scientist theologians, like John Polkinghorne, the mathematician and physicist, and Arthur Peacocke, the biochemist, find that the study of science reinforces rather than challenges their faith. Indeed, there is considerable support for the view that science arose as a consequence of the Judaeo-Christian world view: because we believe in one creator, the world is assumed to be rational and consistent, but because the creator has free will, the world has to be observed to be understood; because the world is God’s creation, it is worthy of study, but because it is separate from the creator, we can experiment on it without impiety.

Some of the tenets of a theology of creation are philosophical assumptions – but equally so are some of the elements of a non-religious creation theory. For instance whether or not there is a creator, whether the creation has purpose or not, are equally articles of belief – they cannot be proved or disproved. For some scientists, the order and beauty of creation is evidence of design. The more we learn about the universe, says Polkinghorne, and the more we understand about the fine tuning necessary to enable the emergence of carbon based life forms, the more he believes in a guiding mind behind it. This is known as the Anthropic Principle.

However, even if we accept the assumption of a Creator, this leaves open the question of how far God is involved in the ongoing process of creation. Did God just set the whole thing going at the Big Bang, and leave it to the chance mechanisms of evolution from then on? This is technically known as Deism – the idea that the creator is uninvolved in the world.

The opposite assumption is that the whole course of history has been planned down to the tiniest detail, and that God puts a finger in the works to direct it, and to adjust things for special people from time to time.

Creation theology, you see, is not just concerned with how it all began, but also with what has been going on since. Strangely, the observations of scientists are now being used by those who believe the Biblical account of creation to oppose a purely Darwinian account of evolution. So, writers such as Philip Johnson, in his ‘testing Darwinism’ will point to gaps in the fossil record and anomalies such as the Cambrian explosion, to argue that natural selection on the macro-evolutionary scale could not have produced human beings in the time scale available; and recent discoveries about the history of human DNA seem to point to a common male and female ancestor, who could be claimed as Adam and Eve. These people would argue that the gaps and anomalies are evidence that God has intervened, as described in the Bible, to direct the creation of human beings.

Other scientists who are also religious believers, while not wishing to go down this road, would nevertheless argue that the doctrine of God’s omnipotence requires that God is free to intervene to direct the progress of Creation towards the divine purpose for it, by events such as the Virginal Conception and the Resurrection of Jesus – miracles that ‘suspend’ natural laws.

Polkinghorne believes that a better explanation for the world as it is, which is also consistent with Christian belief about the nature of God, is that ongoing creation is an interplay between chance and necessity. A fertile world needs both necessity and regularity to provide reliable conditions for life, and chance for novel developments and progress. God is faithful, so the world must be reliable – but a totally reliable world would never change. God is loving, so will give creation freedom to evolve according to its own laws with an element of chance, and humans freedom to choose – so new possibilities will evolve within the limits of the universe.

This produces a world which is in the process of creation. It is a world with ragged edges – with both good and evil inherent in it. Following such a theology of creation, we cannot hold onto the idea of a perfect creation which was then spoilt by a Fall ( but that whole area is something we will go on to consider in later sermons in this series.

But changes like this worry some people who assume that there is a Christian doctrine of creation which has been the same for all time. That is not so. Creation theology has undergone change during the Christian era, as it has been influenced by current philosophical ideas. For instance, the belief that God creates ‘ex nihilo’ (out of nothing ) is not necessarily the biblical idea, where God seems to be creating order from a pre-existent chaos; it came about to counter Gnostic ideas that the matter which God worked with was inherently evil, and the world was the product of a demiurge, and the pure soul needed to escape from it to be with God. The Christian doctrine of creation has been evolving over the past 2000 years – and will continue to do so. It draws on the descriptions of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, but also other passages describing creation in the Psalms and Job, and by many New Testament passages, which talk about the roles of the three persons of the Trinity in creation.

It is simply not the case that the one true Biblical theology of creation has been challenged by the discoveries of 19th and 20th century science. Christian creation theology will go on changing, in conversation with the discoveries of modern science and with our reflection upon our experience of the world we live in and our encounters with God as revealed by that world. The early scientists used to say “ God has written two books for our instruction – the book of scripture and the book of nature”. St. Paul said “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made”. John Polkinghorne writes of the friendship between science and religion, because they are both involved in the search for truth.

That is what creation theology is all about, and it is perfectly possible for us to engage in such theology with intellectual honesty in the third millenium.

One Response to “God, Suffering and Death”

  1. A beautiful discourse! It is engaging as it disentangles from the usual sin and guilt long tedious talk about how or how not to behave. I wish to read some more.

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