Monday, June 23, 2008

Evil, Suffering, Death, and Afterlife in the NT

“Something is over. In the deepest levels of my existence something is finished, done.  
My life is divided into before and after.” 
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

"Vere tu es Deus absconditus: Truly you are a hidden God."
-Blaise Pascal

Taking three weeks to look at how Scripture handles the ONE thing that I most fear; death, was an interesting prospect to begin with.  It was an emotional and theological roller coaster but one that I definitely came out of the other end enjoying. The class was deeply rewarding and helpful in almost forcing me to look into the mirror and come to terms with my own mortality.  In the end, I know that "I see through a glass darkly" on this subject but see much clearer than I did when the course began.  After looking through literature, Scripture, film,  art, and music I have found that, though I possess no more concrete answers than I did at the beginning of the course, in the end I have come to these observations:
  • God is not responsible for evil.  This does not diminish God's sovereignty or power, it claims that evil and subsequent suffering caused by evil is not God's will.  God  is love.  Or, more accurately as Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, "God  is suffering love."  God persists with humanity through evil and suffering in loving relationship and overcomes the final enemy; death, by providing humanity with a bodily resurrection and all of creation with eternal life (the new heaven and new earth in Revelation). This is what God-with-us, Jesus Christ, demonstrates to all those who believe and follow his example, suffering comes with the territory of human life but in relationship with God, we make it through and share in eternal life.   
  •  God's love and grace seeks after us throughout eternity.  Humanity would like to put a timeline upon and obstacles to access the immutable love and unyielding grace of God, stating that only in life may one claim belief and receive salvation through a particular adoption of propositions and a clearly set of moral constructs.  I side with Paul as he writes in Romans 8 that nothing, not angels, rulers, things present or things to come, not even anything "in all creation will be able to separate the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  The point of a life of faith in God is not to procure eternal fire insurance.  The point of life is to live as God calls us to live, in the example of God-with-us, Jesus Christ in order that we share the love of God with those around us and offer them a glimpse into the commonwealth of God, on earth as it is in heaven. 
  • The best gift we can offer those of us who are suffering is compassion and a truly listening ear, mind, and heart. "Compassion", David Ford writes in his book The Shape of Living, "is the overwhelming that meets suffering with full realism and enables an expansive movement of love and generosity."  Often, it is not answers that those who are grieving or living through a suffering experience are looking for.  I believe that people are instead looking for an authentic person who they can ask questions with; someone to help them remember that God suffers with them and is a God who is secure enough for their questions. We will all deal with death, evil, and suffering in our own way and the best we can hope for are individuals and communities that adopt this stance of compassion.  
  • I am in no way saying that evil does not exist, it does and manifests itself in some very real and sobering ways.  I am saying that to believe that somehow God wills certain of us to suffer and experience evil is not authentic to my experience of life, Scripture, and tradition and to my God-given ability to reason.  I do not believe in a God of love b/c it makes me feel better, I do not believe in a God who is affected by the evil and suffering in the world b/c I think that it makes the most sense.  I believe in these b/c this is who God seems to be in my life and manifest in my reading, study, and understanding of the Scripture.  
Thanks to Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles (whose own views and beliefs are NOT expressed in this posting) and the entire ESDA Summer 2008 class who travelled this journey with me.  For those still interested in this subject, I would recommend the following books and resources. 
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff's amazing book, Lament for a Son
  • Walter Wink's exploration of corporate evil in his book, The Powers that Be and his trilogy of books regarding the Powers that predate this publication
  • Atom Egoyan's film The Sweet Hereafter, released in 1997 and based on the Russell Banks novel of the same name
  • For those assisting others near the end of life, Jennifer Sutton Holder and Jann Aldredge-Clanton'sPartinga handbook for spiritual care near the end of life is a must-read
  • Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles academic approach to the topic, written with this class offering in mind, Death and the Afterlife in the New Testament

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