Where is God when you need Him?
In 1775, the center of the Roman Catholic world outside of Rome was said to be Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon was the Catholic city of all Catholic cities. Catholic faith and devotion permeated the very fabric of the city. Out of its burgeoning population of 250,000, 1 out of every 10 were either clergy or somehow professionally involved in ministry. In the hearts and minds of people all throughout Catholic Christendom, Lisbon was God’s city
And yet, on Nov 1st, All Saints Day, there was a massive earthquake 60 miles off the coast of the city. Because it was a Holy Day, everyone was packed in these massive and massively decorated churches. Then the first tremors hit.
The tremors were so powerful that they knocked whole walls of these massive buildings down. Thousands of candles began to fall, setting many of the churches on fire. People panicked as they all rushed towards the exits trying to get out. And that’s when the second shockwave hit. Whole buildings came down with people still inside of them. The fires that began in churches soon started to spread throughout the city. Historians record thousands of Christians desperately crying out as they burned,
“Help us God…Mercy O God!”
But no mercy came. As people flocked to the harbors, hoping to escape the fires, they were greeted with a Tsunami1.
Now, there have been numerous disasters since the advent of Christianity. And, as such, there have been waves of atheists and skeptics in every generation, contesting the veracity of the Christian religion. But every time a disaster like this happens, the same questions are reiterated, though each time with increased vigor and tenacity.
Where was God when we needed Him?
Why would he do this to His own people?
Are we sure that He cares about us and is on our side?
Are we sure that He even exists?
Those were the questions after Lisbon. It was the same thing with 9/11, the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and many other tragic events that have happened since then1.
The Problem of Theodicy.
This leads us to the problem of Theodicy. Hebrew Bible scholar Jon Levenson argues that a basic and fundamental tenet of the Hebrew Bible is God’s sovereignty (mastery) over all of creation2. Biblically, God is portrayed as the all-powerful One who exercises sovereign mastery over every aspect of His creation. This is the God that has covenantally attached Himself to us. And yet, inexplicably, there are things still not yet under His control…things that openly oppose and defy His rule.
If God is so sovereign, why do bad things still happen?
Classically stated, given an all-powerful God who unfailingly loves us and has unfailing mastery over all things, it ought not be possible that tragedies happen…and yet they do. What’s more is that these things happen with alarming frequency and regularity, each time mounting a stronger and stronger argument that God does not exist, or perhaps worse, doesn’t care.
Of course, the problem of theodicy did not originate with Lisbon. Lisbon only highlighted how big a problem theodicy is for Christianity.
Theodicy is not a new problem. In fact, if we grant Levenson’s arguments that the Genesis creation stories being built upon a preexisting primordial battle mythology, and couple that with the scholarship on post exilic redaction, it would then follow that coping with Theodicy is one of the raisons d’etre of the Bible itself.
From that perspective, the theodicy issue is now framed like this: If there really is a God who is all-powerful AND all-loving, but the world is still full of suffering and evil, then there obviously is something wrong. A “wrongness” exists that shouldn’t be able to exist, but tragically and bafflingly, it does. And this “wrongness” is going to be our working definition of “sin”.
Sin is wrongness that ought not be, but is.
The message of the Torah:
One of the most frustrating things about the Bible is that it rarely, if ever explains why bad things happen. The Bible does not portray a Philosopher/teacher God who offers a philosophical treatise for why sin exists or why a sovereign God continues to allow suffering. Instead, it gives us a story of a Hero God who has “a way” (Torah) to save this world from sin. If we limit our understanding of sin to those tragic things we can observe and experience in the world around us that ought not be, but inexplicably are, then we must come to the conclusion that the God of the Bible, for whatever reason, is not inclined to explain Himself. God doesn’t want to explain sin, He wants to eradicate it3.
Therefore, if the plight of our world is wrongness, then the hopeful message of God’s Torah is that God has a way to fix this wrongness and is calling His people to be faithful to this way, even if it means standing up to violent and chaotic enemies of God, those very enemies that we are, at times, not entirely sure that God has complete mastery over.
The overarching promise of the Torah, and of the whole Hebrew Bible itself, is that though it looks bad now, we will see that “fixing” with our own eyes if we are faithful to His way.
The Torah and the “evil impulse”
So the Torah offered a particular worldview. If you follow the Torah, wrongness will be overturned, blessings will come and the whole world will be blessed because of you. But if you fail to keep the Torah, then you are part of the very problem that God is trying to fix.
But even then, there is something else to be considered.
Levenson points out that by the time the major prophetic works were added to the Hebrew Scriptures, Rabbis had realized a disturbing human pattern4.
The Torah was given by God to be a way to fix the world that was not too hard for people to keep (Dt 30:11). But repeatedly, Israel was having trouble keeping it. Eventually, they began to realize that being faithful to the Torah was not a matter of will power, but rather there was what Levenson calls an ‘evil impulse’, a profound inability in humans to faithfully stick to the plan.
Levenson’s discussion on the evil impulse stems from his thoughts on rabbinic commentary (Tanhuma) on Ezekiel 36:27:
“The Holy One (blessed be he) said to Israel: “In this world you stray from the mitsvot [The Law] on account of the Evil Impulse (yētzer hāra’). In the coming age, I will uproot it from you, as the Bible says, ‘I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules,’
The notion of a recreation of humanity in which their better impulses will no longer be dogged by their evil ones is to be found not only in the passage from Ezekiel that the anonymous homilist cites, but elsewhere in the same period. In texts such as Jeremiah’s prediction of a new covenant, the Torah will be made instinctual and no longer in need of preaching and teaching. In the great penitential Psalm 51, of uncertain date, the speaker calls upon God to “Fashion a pure heart for me . . ./ create in me a steadfast spirit.” In all these texts, we detect the pessimistic assumption that evil is not merely a characteristic of the deed, but also of the will and the mind of the doer. What is needed is not still another resolve of the same flawed heart, another act flowing from the same misdirected spirit, but rather a new heart and a new spirit that can embrace Torah and commandments without ambivalence— in short, a new animal to replace homo sapiens.”5
Levenson’s thoughts on the ‘yetser ha-ra’ highlights the problem in light of our discussion. Given the fact that the Torah was given to Israel by God as something that she should’ve been able to keep, but tragically could not, we see there is something wrong. Again, we have this language of tragic “wrongness”.
This leads me to conclude along with the Apostle Paul (Rom 7:17-23) that whatever is wrong with the world, that same wrongness is inside each and every one of us as well.
Thus, if God wants to use humans to fix the wrongness of the world by having them faithfully executing His Torah, then He first needs to fix the internal wrongness that resides in all of us. Or to put it differently, if God wants to eradicate the ‘outside’ sin in the world, He first has to fix the ‘inside’ sin that resides inside the human heart.
Towards a Christian understanding of the Bible.
For years, this theodicy-oriented “Judaistic view” of salvation would not be something you would typically hear in Evangelical circles. For various reasons, Christian understandings of soteriology diverged from Jewish understandings, in favor of a personal penal substitution narrative.
Let me be clear here. I am not saying that the theory of Penal Substitution is wrong and should be jettisoned. Instead, I am simply trying to point out some of the problems that arise if PSA is the only atonement theory that one holds to, especially if it leads one to believe that salvation is only about an individual’s eternal welfare.
For example, in typical Evangelical soteriology, the focus of salvation is not fixing wrongness, but avoiding wrath. This leaves us with an understanding of the gospel that is only marginally helpful with theodicy.
Thankfully, however, this is starting to change.
One of the key factors that brought about this change is the reemergence of the Christus Victor Theory of the Atonement.6
Unlike the Penal Substitution theory, Christus Victor is cosmically theodicy-oriented. It holds that when Christ died on the cross, the powers of evil and the enemies of God were defeated.
Or to put it in terms of our discussion, the wrongness of the world, the very existence of which challenges the veracity of God’s sovereign and loving mastery over all things, has been put right again because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Thus the narrative, following Christus Victor, would now go like this: God has a Torah (a way) to fix the wrongness of this world. He is covenantally committed to using humans in doing so. If humans could overcome their evil impulse and be faithful to His Torah, the wrongness of the world would be fixed. Jesus is the faithful human who, against all odds, kept Torah. When He died and rose again, the wrongness inside of humans and outside in the world was fixed.
Perhaps the best illustration that captures the theodicy-centric essence of this view is in a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
“I believe like a child, that all suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human stupidity will vanish like a pitiful mirage…that in the end, something so precious will come to pass that it will satisfy all hearts, comfort all resentments, atone for all the crimes of men, of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Dostoevsky’s words frame the solution in a way that helps us to see how all-encompassing God’s solution is. God doesn’t merely want to save humans from hell. His mastery and Kingship has been challenged. His people are being slaughtered. Though He refuses to rule like the Pharaohs and Caesars, who use violence and power to fight, He also will not stand idly by. The gospel is a story about how God fights for His world. And when He fights, He wins.
Why did Jesus have to die?
One of the problems with an anthropocentric gospel (i.e. a gospel that is merely man-centric instead of cosmic centric) cut off from its Judaistic roots is that it makes it harder to answer the question of why Jesus had to die. In this view, God is made out to be a vindictive child abuser. Pertaining to theodicy, God is not part of the solution, He’s part of the problem. Or perhaps more to the point, He is the problem.
My contention is that a theodicy-oriented gospel more organically connected to its Judaistic heritage would alleviate the problem greatly.
Jon Levenson has a discussion on the exegesis of Isaiah 25 where it is said that God will swallow up Death (Mot) forever. When he focuses on the word “Mot”, he has this to say:
…it is much more likely that what is definitively defeated here (Mot) is the personification of all life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation. In support of this, I would draw attention to 26:19, in which YHWH’s life-giving dew brings about a resurrection:
Oh, let Your dead revive!
Let corpses arise!
Awake and shout for joy,
You who dwell in the dust!—
For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth;
You make the land of the shades come to life.
This resurrection of the dead here is best seen as the logical consequence of the defeat of Death predicted in 25:8.7
What he is saying is that Death, at least in this passage, should be seen as a personified metonym for what he calls “life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease and humiliation.” Death iconically embodies all things that oppose God’s loving, sovereign mastery. It mythopoetically incarnates all the “wrongness” of this world.
But if Death personifies wrongness, then it makes sense that Life (Chaim) would personify all that is right, all that is Torah, all that would fix this Deathly wrongness.
So when Christians understood Jesus to be this Life personified, they called Him the Lord of Life who, via His resurrection, conquers Death.
So when we hear the story of Jesus who dies on a cross and resurrects in order to put all wrongness right again, it is a distinctly Jewish story. For it to make sense, it must not be taken out of its Judaistic context. To do so drastically changes the meaning of the story itself.
- This whole section is derived from Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. Chapter 1. Kindle Edition.
- This whole bit is taken from Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil ch 1-3. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
- I cannot, for the life of me, remember where I heard this argument. Any assistance in finding its source would be appreciated.
- See also WD Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology. See especially the first chapter.
- Levenson, Jon D. (2013-10-01). Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Kindle Locations 1129-1140). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition
- Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor 1931
- Levenson, Jon D. (2013-10-01). Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Kindle Location 984). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.