In Part One: Understanding the Furnace, Dr. Keller took us through how various cultures, religions and eras in history dealt with suffering. We also explored the philosophical issue of the “problem of evil” and the responses that can be given for it. Now in Part Two: Facing the Furnace, he will take us through what the Bible teaches about suffering that will enable us to walk through our afflictions with teaching that is profoundly realistic while at the same time astonishingly hopeful.
Chapter Five: The Challenge of Faith
The other gods were strong, but Thou was weak.
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne.
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds but Thou alone.
- Edward Shillito, from “Jesus of the Scars”
Dr. Keller proposes three themes in Christian teaching that can serve as reasons for the heart as opposed to abstract propositions.
The first are the doctrines of creation and fall. The biblical account of Creation reveals that we were meant for something more than merely returning to dust, but that love was meant to last. The Fall demonstrates that the original intent has been broken. In the Garden, Adam was called to work. Yet we see how hard work doesn’t always lead to prosperity, that sometimes injustice or disasters can wipe it away in an instant. This reveals a nuanced understanding of suffering, that those who suffer more are not worse than those who suffer less. The world is too fallen and deeply broken to divide people into neat patterns of good and bad. The brokenness is inherited by all of us.
All of this can bring the relief of humility. Most of us expect that it is God’s responsibility to create a world for our benefit. But this entitlement mentality results in confusion when life goes inevitably wrong. Perhaps we need to consider that the assumption that God owes us a good life is really unwarranted. Could it be that the riddle of evil is not as we think it is, but really why, in light of our behavior, does God allow so much happiness?
The second theme is the doctrines of judgment and renewal. But many object to a God who would judge and punish people. But if there is no judgment, then what of all the injustice in the world? The options without God are to lose hope or turn to vengeance. Judgment warns us that we have neither the ability to know or understand which people deserve punishment nor the right to mete out punishment when we are sinners ourselves. Thus judgment is not a gloomy concept, but one that enables us to live with hope and grace.
Resurrection means not just consolation, but restoration of life as it was meant to be, glorious, perfect, and rich in a renewed material world. Consider the thought that having experienced a broken and lost world could produce a future world that brings far greater glory and joy than would be experienced without there having been evil. Evil then becomes not an obstacle to future joy, but accomplishes the opposite of what it intended. It makes the glory and joy that much better and is utterly defeated in the process.
The final theme is the doctrines of incarnation and atonement. In the Old Testament book of Job, he is confronted by God with his own finitude, his inability to understand God’s purposes, and his status as a sinner in no position to make any demands of God. This reveals a most difficult and severe truth about suffering, that ultimately, we are in no position to question God. Yet this tension is met with “the essential Christian solution to the problem”, that God himself came into this world, suffered and experienced darkness, bore the curse of sin and death which we have earned, taking the punishment on himself not to justify himself, but to justify us, so he can one day end all evil without condemning us.
Only Christianity teaches that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ and was subject to suffering and death himself. From this, we may not yet know the reason God allows evil and suffering, but we now know what the reason is not. It is not that he does not care. It is not that he does not love us. He is so committed to us that he plunged into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He has been there and he understands and he has a plan for us. Consider the relationship of parents and children. Little children don’t understand parent’s reasons for what they allow and disallow, but they can comprehend that their parents love them and they are able to trust their parents and live in security. So the issue for us then is this, can we trust God? He is really loving and just?
So why didn’t Jesus just do something when he came to earth? Why didn’t he just put an end to injustice and evil? Dr. Keller asks us to consider Tolkien’s dictum: “Always after a defeat and a respite…[evil] takes another shape and grows again.” Think of the wonderful technological advances that we have today in health care, communication and energy. Yet how easily can that technology be used to cause harm and destruction on greater and greater scales. The reason is that to a great degree, the evil in the world comes from within us. But we are so profoundly self-centered that we fail to see that we are the very source of the evil we condemn. So what would have been left if Jesus put an end to injustice and evil? It would have meant the end of humanity itself. If you think that is not fair, then you have not taken an honest look at your own capabilities.
Jesus came not to bring justice, but to bear it. God’s plan was not to overthrow the Roman oppression and do what we are capable of doing and should do ourselves. His program was more radical. He died on a cross, took the punishment we deserve and then rose from the dead creating a people whose hearts are transformed, diminishing the evil within.
“The bible says that Jesus is the light of the world. If you know you are in his love, and that nothing can snatch you out of his hand, and that he is taking you to God’s house and God’s future – then he can be a light for you in dark places when all other lights go out. His love for you now – and this infallible hope for the future – are indeed a light in the darkness, by which we can find our way.”
Next week Chapter Six: The Sovereignty of God.
Until then, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,