Where was God? There, upon the cross

Theodicy is an attempt to justify God or the ways of God before the bar of reason or experience. When calamities occur we often see two kinds of theodicies: some defend God’s honor and glory and love by pointing to the sinfulness of humans, while others tend to defend God’s ways by appealing to mystery or to “we just don’t know but we know God is good.” Both of these are instances of the same species: one defends God’s justice and love while the other defends God’s love and justice. Many lack the very point Brian Zahnd recently made in his post about windbag speeches, which is what many, many theodicies are — just windbag speeches. Instead of saying “It’s our fault,” which surely taps a problem, or instead of saying “No way God is behind that,” which also taps on the problem, perhaps we should learn to see the whole from the angle of the cross, and God’s solidarity with suffering in order to transform death into life.

This much I am sure of: The satan has reappeared in the story in the form of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Their insistence on talking and explaining has inevitably led to accusing and tormenting blameless Job. Finally Job can stand it no more and explodes…

I’ve had all I can take of your talk.
What a bunch of miserable comforters!
Is there no end to your windbag speeches?
What’s your problem that you go on and on like this?

(Job 16:2-3 MSG)

Yeah. Windbag speeches. What is your problem? Why go on and on like that?! It’s just plain cruel.

A cruelty rooted in defending the false comfort of theological certitude.

Or was it just the cruelty of talking too much?

And just in case you’re somehow inclined to defend the Eliphaz gang, don’t forget this…

After God had finished addressing Job, he turned to Eliphaz the Temanite and said, “I’ve had it with you and your two friends. I’m fed up! You haven’t been honest either with me or about me — not the way Job has.” (Job 42:7 MSG)

And how does God defend himself in the “whirlwind speeches”?

As far as I can tell he doesn’t — unless it’s by way of implication. Is God implying something like this: “Look, I’m the Creator. And if there is something wrong, I know about it and I’ll do something about it. I know the buck stops here.” Is that what God is implying? Perhaps. I’m not sure.

am convinced that the closest thing we have to a Christian theodicy is simply this:

The world is full of unjust suffering. This is true. But God has not exempted himself from it. In Christ, God has joined us in the reality of human suffering. If the question is “Where was God?” — the Christian answer is, “There, upon the cross, joining us in solidarity with our suffering.”

I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was on to something when he said, “Only the suffering God can help.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • NateW

    AMEN.

    The passage mentioned is from Bonhoeffer’s collected Letters and Papers from Prison. Coming across this passage (originally in a Peter Rollins book I think) bargain the complete reformation (or perhaps “restoration” is a better word) of my faith.

    Here’s an extended quote. The context is the apparent fact if the western world’s shift away from a theistic worldview with Bonhoeffer wondering if it might be time to begin trying to formulate a “non-religious” approach to Christianity.

    “And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world ‘est deus non daretur’ [as if God does not exist]. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and sufferings.

    Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the *deus ex machina.* The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. This will probably be the starting-point for our ‘secular interpretation’.”

  • kerry

    Thank you for this very succinct, convincing and sensitive discussion of theodicy. I say this from the shadows of awaiting surgery for breast cancer.

  • http://logicandimagination.wordpress.com/ Melody Harrison Hanson

    Thank you for this voice of reason.

  • Monte Harris

    This one’s a hard one for me to swallow. Jesus suffered on the cross, but not the Father. Else that would be patripassianism. So where was god? Even Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did he not, even, ask where god was? In his pain he didn’t seem to be resting easy in propositions of god’s goodness, plan, sovereignty, or anything of the sort. I guess he did finish with “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” ending on a note of faith. At least in Jesus’ case, the Father doesn’t break into a monologue like he did at the end of Job.

  • danaames

    Monte,

    perhaps some insight from Eastern Christianity might help.

    First, whatever Jesus is doing, the Father and the Spirit are also involved. The Persons of the Trinity are never divided from one another.

    Second, it’s possible that Jesus as a human may have *felt* distant from the Father. But as you say, he knew even more the reality that he wasn’t distant, and he trusted. Orthodox icons depict Christ on the cross as calm, not anguished, because that is the deeper reality and meaning: God’s forgiveness displayed, Christ identifying with humanity all the way to death, and entering into death so as to conquer it. Eastern/Patristic theology does not see the cross as the Son suffering the Father’s wrath.

    Third, the theological meaning of the word “passion” is not the same as how we understand it, as having emotions and/or deep desires, and it also does not mean “unable to change.” What God being “dispassionate” means is that he is totally free and not driven by anything.

    Dana


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