Theology of the Cross and the Problem of Evil (#6)

Our final installment of our consideration of Carl Trueman’s article Luther’s Theology of the Cross:

This casts the problem of evil in a somewhat different light for Luther than, say, for Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They happen, Luther would say, because that is how God blesses them. God accomplishes his work in the believer by doing his alien work (the opposite of what we expect); he really blesses by apparently cursing.

Indeed, when it is grasped that the death of Christ, the greatest crime in history, was itself willed in a deep and mysterious way by the triune God, yet without involving God in any kind of moral guilt, we see the solution to the age-old problem of absolving an all-powerful God of responsibility for evil. The answer to the problem of evil does not lie in trying to establish its point of origin, for that is simply not revealed to us. Rather, in the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good. Romans 8:28 is true because of the cross of Christ: if God can take the greatest of evils and turn it to the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, from individual tragedies to international disasters, and turn them to his good purpose as well.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dan Kempin

    This is certainly deep theology, the depths of which I would never presume to plumb thoroughly and these reflections are–to coin an old liturgical term–meet, right, and salutary.

    Having said that, I’m not sure that ‘evil’ is the best foil for understanding the theology of the cross. ‘Evil’ is not the antithesis of blessing (defined by our culture as success and prosperity), but of ‘good,’ and the theology of the cross is itself defined by a day that we call “Good Friday.” To speak of the cross as “subverting” evil into good seems inherently dangerous. God works in all things, but evil is never good.

    The antithesis of ‘blessing,’ at least as far as I am able to read our culture, is ‘suffering.’

    Suffering, in my opinion, is the burden and challenge of the cross. If faith in God and love for neighbor is to be truly grasped, then a Christian must have their definitions constantly re-clarified by the cross: ‘Love’ is defined by sacrifice (another possible antithesis of blessing) and ‘good’ is found in suffering.

    The burden is made more difficult for a Christian by the fact that our culture is acutely suffer-phobic. Suffering in and of itself has become the new definition of evil, leading to the reasonableness of such concepts as “death with dignity,” . . . but that could take us to an entirely different topic.

    I thank you for posting this thought provoking material. Please bless me with correction wherever necessary.

  • Nemo

    [I] [Bad things to good people] happen, Luther would say, because that is how God blesses them. God accomplishes his work in the believer by doing his alien work (the opposite of what we expect); he really blesses by apparently cursing.[/I]

    I am inclined to say, with Tavye, “May the Lord smite me with [wealth]. And may I never recover.” Those outside of Christ are cursed (Galatians 3:10), and it would be dangerous to re-label that as a blessing. Blessings are blessings and are good, curses are curses and are bad. Or are we dealing with a good/evil yin/yang force here?

    [I]Indeed, when it is grasped that the death of Christ, the greatest crime in history, was itself willed in a deep and mysterious way by the triune God, yet without involving God in any kind of moral guilt, we see the solution to the age-old problem of absolving an all-powerful God of responsibility for evil. The answer to the problem of evil does not lie in trying to establish its point of origin, for that is simply not revealed to us. Rather, in the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good.[/I]

    We may not be able to fully account for the origin of evil and Satan’s fall, but we can rule out God, no? God, after all, is good. End of story. In Him there is no evil, He is neither the author nor the cause of evil. And all throughout Scripture good is distinct from evil, just like blessings are distinct from curses (or maybe the Psalms just give us lots of bad theology–oh wait, they aren’t about the incarnation and hence do not reveal God). Rather than clarifying the good/evil distinction, this article confuses them.

    Oh, and since I didn’t get a chance to respond the other day, it is also incorrect to claim that Christ’s suffering and death is an example of how God deals with those He loves.

    [I] The lesson of the cross for Luther is that the most blessed person upon earth, Jesus Christ himself, was revealed as blessed precisely in his suffering and death. And if that is the way that God deals with his beloved son, have those who are united to him by faith any right to expect anything different?[/I]

    God does not deal with those he loves by pouring out His wrath on them; He deals with them by taking His wrath on Himself. Christ was cursed (humbled, as distinct from His current exhaulted state) so we wouldn’t have to be; not so that we could be and then by some language twisting redefine it as a blessing. We are able to expect something different precisely because that is how God dealt with his beloved Son.

    “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Hebrews 12:13-14)

    Lest you mistake me, the prosperity “gospel” needs criticism. But this falls into the opposite trap, call it a poverty or a curse gospel. Rather than God being an ATM, He becomes a curse dispenser. It is so afraid of a “theology of glory” that it detracts from the glory of God.

  • CRB
  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Nemo,
    you write:
    “God does not deal with those he loves by pouring out His wrath on them; He deals with them by taking His wrath on Himself. Christ was cursed (humbled, as distinct from His current exhaulted state) so we wouldn’t have to be; not so that we could be and then by some language twisting redefine it as a blessing. We are able to expect something different precisely because that is how God dealt with his beloved Son.”
    Yep that is what I got from that whole “pick up your cross and follow me, … the student is not above the teacher….” I’m sure that is what Christ meant by those things, that we can expect better than him in this world.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks Bror, for posting that response to Nemo. It is also true that all true crosses come from God. It is perplexing – but God has given all of the Word to work its way with us – the Law and the Gospel. Nemo seems to want to reduce God to just the Gospel and love and everything that is good in Nemo’s eyes (even though I would probably agree with Nemo on pretty much everything he wants to call good – me also being human and all) but then leave out a whole lot of the counsel of God. That’s why He has revealed all of His counsel and not just the stuff that appeals to our fallen human aesthetic of the “good”. After all, it is “Good” Friday according to God’s definition of the term via the cross. If God must conform to our human views of “good” well then we are left with a very small god indeed.

  • Dan Kempin

    Careful, Bryan, that you do not equate suffering and the crosses God gives with ‘Law,’ for “The Law Brings Wrath.”

    That is what makes this discussion profound and difficult for our human nature–it involves re-definition of terms on a very fundamental level. Suffering and hardship, though defined as ‘bad’ and ‘evil’ to our nature, are in reality ‘good,’ and in fact gifts from God. They are not pleasant, but they are good. (I am speaking here from a Christian perspective.) Jesus tells every believer that they must take up their cross, but He also came “so that they might have life and ‘abundance’.” (Not “have it to the full” as often mis-translated. (Those of you with Greek: Look it up.))

    On the other hand, suffering is also not a work of the law, for “The Law Works Death.” Suffering is not particularly noble or meritorious. We do not earn anything of value by suffering in and of itself–it is merely the path that our Lord sets before us. Faith walks the path God sets before us and accepts his re-definition of ‘good.’

    I think that was Nemo’s point–a caution that we do not respond to a theology of glory with a theology of meritorious suffering. (Did I get that, Nemo?) God does not place ‘bad’ things on us and label them as ‘good’–they truly are good, but only because of the cross of our Lord.

    Whew, this is deep thinking for early morning. I know that Luther himself struggled to grasp this, so I feel a bit better about my own struggles. Please bless me with your wisdom if I am in error.

    May God bless you today.

    (And I leave it to Him to define what that means.)

    btw, sorry for all the single quotes. I don’t know now to use italics, and that is the only way I could think to emphasize a word.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    To quote the Bible:Romans 5:1-6 (ESV)
    ” Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. [2] Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. [3] More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, [4] and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, [5] and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
    [6] For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ”

    Now with a theology of glory we would be taught to reject suffering, that suffering is not something to rejoice in, but a result of our lack of faith etc. But Christians learn that this suffering tempers our faith like a forge tempering a sword. In a manner of speaking it is a blessing, though it is not pleasant. That isn’t to say that we don’t also recognize those things Luther lays out in the first article, or our daily bread as blessings also. But the suffering in many ways does bring us to greater appreciation of our daily bread as family and friends gather around to comfort the bereaved. Perhaps in a way there is the twisted truth of Nietzche (who was the son of a Lutheran pastor.) “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Suffering doesn’t kill us, and it makes us stronger, so we rejoice in it. But a theology of glory would kill us it would tell us because we don’t believe hard enough, etc. The effect leading us to false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. In fact the theology of glory is the false belief, the vice that leads us to the other vice of despair, and the great shames by which many try hide their vice or drown their despair in. You end up in the vice of self righteousness (the greatest of all shames, at least the most foul smelling vice) or the despair, rather than leading you to the cross, (because the theology of glory has told you there is nothing there for you, no forgiveness or comfort, that was done so you could expect glory), it leads rather to other great shames, drunkeness, sexual immorality, thieving (ever wonder why used car sales men tend to be evangelicals?) or other crutches.

  • Nemo

    Bror @ 4,

    To say we should expect to receive the same treatment from God that Christ received (i.e. that his suffering on the Cross is our example) is to deny the substitutionary effect of His suffering.

    Sure we still experience suffering, but nothing like what Christ went through. We can expect the same treatment as Christ [i]from the world[/i], but not [i]from the Father[/i]. The Father continues to lovingly discipline us, but not curse us or pour His wrath out on us. Christ’s death and resurrection freed us from the curse of the law; it didn’t redefine the curse as a blessing.

    ****

    Bryan @ 5,

    Where have I implied that God must conform to our conception of good? God must conform to what is good, for God is good. God is not evil, nor is He the cause of evil. Where is the heresy in that?

    ****

    Dan @ 6,

    Yes, you are understanding my caution. Your distinction between “suffering” and “curses” is also helpful. As Christians we are free from the curse, we are not freed from suffering (yet). Both the prosperity gospel and Trueman are confusing the two concepts, leading to opposite conclusions.

    ****

    Bror @ 7,

    Who here is advocating the (as of yet undefined) “theology of glory”?

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Nemo – obviously you know what is good. But excuse me if I refrain from bowing to you.

    I still maintain that all real crosses which a Christian may suffer come from God and many many people will call them evil and curse God without the revelation of Christ bloody on the cross and the resurrection in their place.

    Yes, I expect great glory in my hope rooted in Christ’s cross and resurrection. But not in this life. Glad things go better for you Nemo. Way to go! Maybe I should bow. I’ll have to think on that one a little more.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Nemo,
    “We are able to expect something different precisely because that is how God dealt with his beloved Son.”

    For all your attempts to qualify what you say this here exposes a theology of glory. I am to expect something different than what Christ received. I am not to suffer etc.
    No I don’t neglect to see the substitutionary effect of Christ’s suffering, by recognizing that I will still suffer for Christ in this world, anymore than I neglect to see the substitutionary effect of Christ’s death when I plan my funeral and write a will.
    Further more it is not lost on me that the apostles, pillars of the faith, suffered and died for the faith. Now you may not advocate the “prosperity gospel” but that is just one manifestation of the theology of glory, which is any theology that ignores the forgiveness of sins, and makes the Christian and his faith the subject of Christianity rather than Christ and his cross. When the emphasis is put on the “believer” rather than the believed in (Christ), you are in a theology of glory. When you expect to conquer sin, rather than live in the forgiveness of sins, you are in a theology of glory. When you imagine that you merit forgiveness with your works or the sincerity of your faith, you are in a theology of glory. When your faith is dependent on you, you are in a theology of glory. As I said when the focus is taken off of Christ and his Cross, you are in a theology of glory. In short Nemo, based on your antipathy to the theology of the cross here, and things of which you have said elsewhere, you advocate this “ill defined” theology of glory.


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