Updates: Austin has replied to this post with his own thoughts. I have also edited this post to correct some of my incorrect Hebrew grammar Austin pointed out.
Earlier, I posted some comments that my good friend (and occasional contributor to this blog) Austin Ricketts wrote on my post yesterday about the relationship between evil, beauty, and the nature of God. Read those words if you would like his beautiful and articulate wrestling with this idea. Here is my response.
At some point in their lives, most people face the question: Can God stop this suffering? If not, is he God? If he can, but doesn’t, what kind of God is he?
Most of the time, attempts to push this question to a solid conclusion lead to unfortunate results. Many have abandoned God altogether over this, and still others, who maintain their faith, end up doing the mental gymnastics only to end up in positions entirely foreign to the Bible or that are even more illogical than when you began.
Here’s my attempt at a response, fully aware of the dangers that come with doing so. Please be gracious. Please reply. Point out my heresies, And please allow me the room to change my mind later on.
As I have talked about before, I believe that “suffering” and even “death” are in some mysterious way, “part” of God’s Essence as a suffering and dying God; a God who, as John’s revelation praises him as, is “slain before the foundations of the world”. This is most clearly seen at the Cross. But, there’s an important thing to point out. Jesus on the Cross is not “adding” suffering and death to the Divine Essence, as if that Essence can be changed and added to through time, but instead is expressing God’s eternal Essence as it is being manifested in this world at a particular time.
This scheme has been articulated by others, but it’s critics say that there’s no way to say that “suffering” and “death” are part of God’s Essence without also adding “evil” to that mix. And if you do that, there’s no way to get around (at least) the implication that God is, therefore, the very author of evil itself–an idea that has roundly been denied by Church Tradition.
Here’s the problem, though: God Himself, throughout the Bible, does not seem to be that concerned with demonstrating how he is not the author of evil.
In the Garden, he is clearly the Creator of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the serpent. In the drama of Job, Satan inflicts a bunch of stuff on Job, Job then says that God has done it, and then the Scriptures say, “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” In Isaiah 45:7, God directly says, “I make well-being [shalom] and create evil [Ra], I am the LORD, who does all these things.” Notice he uses the word “make”–a word attributed to both God and man–in bringing about shalom, but uses the word “create” (ba’ra for all the linguists out there), the divine-only, Genesis 1 word for “create” for the bad stuff.
(Where I translate the word “evil”, most other translations put “calamity” or “disaster”. Not only do I feel this doesn’t quite resolve the issue, this Hebrew word here, Ra, is the same as in the phrase “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Ra“. Everywhere else–except for one other instance–in the Bible it’s the strongest word translated as “evil”.)
And lastly, about the greatest act of evil ever, the murder of the Son of God, Peter says that it happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”
These are the highlights, but in other places as well, both big and small, evil both willful and natural is said to have had its beginnings somewhere in God Himself.
And yet, even though God does not seem preoccupied with “proving” he is not the Author of Evil, he is indeed obsessed with showing that He is still Good in spite of it. How?
A Storied Solution?
I think the first fault is Plato’s. Even in Austin’s aforementioned comments, he kept referring to God’s “formal” essence: Plato’s scheme of there being some static “form” for all things (ultimately epitomized in God Himself). He rightly said that the “solution” to this Evil problem cannot be found here. But what if God’s fundamental Essence was not “Formal”? What if, just as with humanity, God Himself has a “Storied Essence” rather than a “Formal Essence”?
Every source of “revelation” that the church has recognized (Jesus, the Bible, Tradition, and Nature) are all “storied”, and the “revelation” is not in any one moment or “proposition”, but over the course of their movements, transitions, and narratives.
Could it be we’ve gone about considering the Nature and Essence of God wrongly? By (understandably) trying to reduce Him to His “attributes”, I fear we’ve given the impression that each thing that exists within God’s Essence is in a “brute”, “discrete”, or (philosophically) “simple” form.
And so, I would propose that God has a Narratival Nature. Throughout Scripture, God describes His very Nature as things like “Redeemer”, “Mother”, “Father”, “Provider”, “Merciful One”–all things that cannot be true without a Story. God cannot be a redeemer or the merciful one if there was nothing to redeem or show mercy to–if there was no story to this effect. He cannot act as parent if there were no others to call his children. And so, History, Creation, Suffering, Death, and ultimately Jesus and the Cross are expressions and participants in God’s Divine Essence.
Some Anticipated Objections
First off, isn’t this Open Theism, and doesn’t it challenge God’s “immutability”?
I’m not saying that the future (or “the story” in this terminology) is “open” to God, such that he could change in response to the actions of humanity (ala Open Theism). This “story” within God is his absolute Nature that plays out in time, space, and his interactions with humanity. And as he does, we see the same story repeated in various ways throughout redemptive history–it doesn’t change. This is where “types of Christ” and “allegorical readings” in Scripture come from. It is the singular, closed story of God playing out in history at both a micro- and meta-level.
And, when you look at this, you repeatedly see a Storied Essence revealed in which God has death and suffering as part of his Nature. In the first instance of the gospel in Genesis 3, you see God promise this his heal will be bruised. After Noah’s flood, God’s “bow” (the Hebrew word for “rainbow” is not used, rather it’s the term for a military bow) hung in the sky and pointed upward towards God Himself. You see God covenanting within Himself to be as an animal torn apart. In the Exodus desert, Yahweh places Himself on the stone of judgment to receive the prosecution of the people. Yahweh hurts, cries, laments, longs, weeps, and ultimately, in Christ dies.
The Gospel, the Story of Redemption through Death, Evil, and Suffering is, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, the wisdom of God from eternity past–even before we sinned and Christ actually came. This has been Plan/Story A, and not God’s best idea at a Plan/Story B after we messed it up. The Gospel, just like the Law, is an expression of God’s Character and Nature, not separate from it.
These are the cyclical, repetitive manifestations of the closed and “set” story of God. It’s not “open” to the future.
Secondly, if this is the “Storied Essence” of God, what do we do with the New Creation where these things are done away with?
Two ideas: first, this story is not just one of evil and death, but rather how, even through those things, they are done away with. And so, even though I’m implying that God “moves” through the “story” of his nature, it’s still his one unchangeable nature through which he is moving (even Jesus had to move through death into Resurrection).
Secondly, and perhaps even more provocatively, where do we get the idea that death, evil, and suffering, even within the Storied Essence of God, go away in the New Creation? Those things are surely done away with for Creation and Humanity, but doesn’t the Resurrected Christ still bear the scars of his death even after his Resurrection? Could the Story of God be one in which he bears our due death and suffering within himself, for all time, so we might not taste its sting? Oh the worship we would offer should that be the case!
Thirdly, does this mean that God is the “author” of Evil, and are you saying that Evil as an actual entity doesn’t exist?
Admittedly, this is the biggest of the mysteries that this discussion touches upon, and it’s admittedly the one that I have the least concrete of thoughts about. But I have a few ideas.
Yes, I am saying that Evil exists within the Narrative Nature and Storied Essence of God. But (and oh this is so important!), it is not in a “formal” or “discrete” way. There is surely Evil, but there is never (at least within God and History) such a thing as “brute” or “simple” Evil that is not in the service of bringing about Good and the conquering of that very Evil. I hope I phrased that well. In other words: Evil, where it exists, always exists in the story of getting rid of it. It is a means to its own end, rather than an end or entity itself.
And so, even Evil’s presence in the Storied Essence of God does not make that Essence itself “Evil” any more than the presence of the wicked step-mother in Cinderella makes that story itself “wicked”. (It’s an analogy that can’t be taken very far, I know, but just work with me here).
Could this truth about Evil only existing as the hand-maiden of God’s Goodness bring encouragement to sufferers out there? I think it might.
And as for Evil’s “origin” or “author”? If this really is the way things are within the very eternal Essence of God, how are we to ask about any part of that essence? What is the “author” or “origin” of any eternally-past thing? If this story of Redemption through Evil has been the wisdom and Essence of God from Eternity-past, can we not say that it simply “has been”, instead of having “appeared” or having been “authored” at some particular point in time?
Lastly, surely this does away with propositional belief and discussion about God–especially confessions, creeds, and classical “formal” discussions of God, right?
I am fully aware of the contemporary obsession with “narrative” and “story”, and the rejection of systematic and propositional truth in light of it. I was certainly convicted by a wonderful recent piece from Christianity Today, called “The Gospel is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony”. In it, Leslie Fields attacks this pre-occupation with story and how it doesn’t offer us the fullest and surest foundation and place of confidence for the Christian faith. In fact, by itself, it causes Christianity to break down.
Also, I go to a Confessional and Creedal-driven church–hardly an environment opposed to propositional articulations of Christian belief. And so, I still resonate with these systematic discussions about God, even in (Platonic) “formal” terms. How does this fit in to this Storied Essence of God?
Well, first off, a “narrative” theological view is often used to say “less” about God and “diminish” hard things. I think this is harmful and wrong. A narrative filter through which to discuss God is used best when it says more about God than what a “mere” systematic discussion can say. And I hope I have done that here. I also think that a narratival perspective is helpful and necessary to systematic approaches, and not the enemy of them.
And so, in this scheme I’ve laid out here, I would say that the propositional “parts” of God’s Essence and Nature are best seen like themes and motifs in the story. For example, instead of thinking about God’s Omnipotence as some discrete categorical attribute , one would instead think of the consistent “theme” of Omnipotence expressed throughout God’s Storied Essence. We wouldn’t necessarily talk like that, but it might be helpful to have that idea in mind as we have our “formal” conversations.
And so as we discuss suffering, death, and sin as “within” “God, it moves away from established heresy to talk of those things almost as “set-pieces” or “motifs” within the Storied Nature of God, even when they are not the fundamental theme, beginning, or final endpoint of that Story.
And so, now that I’ve written nearly three times as much as I try to write in a single post, I will have to simply end there with no dramatic conclusion to wrap it all up. For those of you that read this whole thing, thank you. And now feel free to discuss below.
[image credit: Mark Rothko “No. 9, White and Black on Wine, 1958”]